Colleges can avoid closing the door on financial aid knowledge – Natural Self Esteem

Dozens of applicants at Muhlenberg and Whitman Colleges received offers of admission that month. Perhaps they were a pleasant surprise for students who had slept through junior year.

However, what shouldn’t come as a surprise to most of them is the price that schools charge them – or discounts that are available, even for wealthy families.

That’s because Muhlenberg and Whitman are at the forefront of a movement for transparency about college pricing and the processes by which it is reduced. Many others, like Northeastern University, are intentional latecomers. Others don’t seem to have given much thought to the need for clarity beforehand.

That’s a problem.

“When the finance variable is left until the end, it’s not transparent and it’s really frustrating,” said Adam Miller, interim vice president of admissions and financial assistance at Whitman. “And it can have really terrible results when families have nagging conversations, when a student has fallen in love with a college and it’s not financially viable.”

Schools have two main methods of determining any discount you may receive on the price. The first, needs-based financial aid is a process in which the federal government and the schools themselves assess your income — and some of your assets — to determine what they think you should pay, even if their expectations aren’t met. Doesn’t match yours. The second, merit support, is much less predictable and describes everything from hard-fought scholarships to discounts a school offers to anyone.

If you can’t get clarity on both in advance, buy and apply in the dark. And one unfortunate truth underscores the need for clearer explanations: Only a small number of schools are wealthy enough to take in any student they want and then give them enough scholarships to make attending affordable.

The rest face difficult choices. Some schools admit any student they want without considering their ability to pay — a process called blind admission — but without giving them all enough discounts to make it affordable.

Others direct their aid budget to a smaller group and turn down some otherwise worthy applicants because their need will be too great. This process is commonly referred to as needs-aware. Some needs-based schools fully meet the needs of everyone they accept, while many others do not.

Few colleges will tell you this in plain English, or detail their own process. But Muhlenberg in Allentown, Pennsylvania, stands out on its website for a little-known essay called “The Real Deal on Financial Aid,” which is supposed to be required reading should be. The school decided it was a virtue to just say it like it is.

“Money has become a means of enrolling the very students an institution wants most,” explains the Muhlenberg essay. “This phenomenon is referred to as ‘preferential packaging’.”

The essay points to an unfortunate consequence: “Some students who are closer to the bottom of the admitted student group are ‘gapful’, meaning they have a financial aid package, but it does not meet their full needs.”

This means that Mühlenberg (and numerous other institutions like it) will almost certainly disappoint some of its accepted students with prohibitive price offers. However, given the essay’s refreshing frankness, don’t be surprised that such a result is possible.

As useful as Muhlenberg’s words are for describing how colleges list prices, other schools just go further and tell applicants how their specific grades and scores might affect their discounts.

At the University of Alabama, international freshmen have nine (nine!) scholarship qualification levels based on test scores and grade point average. The University of South Carolina offers average test and grade levels for their many different amounts of merit support, and Wabash College also has clear guidance.

(All colleges are required to offer a net pricing calculator that you can use to enter your financial information and estimate what the school might charge you, but the calculators only need to calculate with need-based help. Oberlin College & Conservatory is an exception among the more selective schools that Include earnings support in their calculator.)

Whitman in Walla Walla, Washington, goes even further to help prospective students weigh the costs. The Early Financial Assistance Guarantee invites prospective applicants to request a price quote by submitting academic information for merit assistance and financial data for need-based assistance. Then it comes back with a number.

Whitman may give you a bigger discount than it promises up front – once it conducts a more thorough review of your complete application – but no less. The College of Wooster in Ohio also offers a personalized estimate and similar guarantee as long as people submit accurate information.

For Whitman, the lack of clarity about pricing was a fundamental market inefficiency that could be addressed. “Some colleges could benefit from a lack of financial transparency,” said Mr. Miller, Whitman’s interim vice president.

In fact, far too many schools keep things opaque, and have even doubled down on withholding useful information.

In a column about early decision applicants in January, I cited Northeastern as an example of a school that made it difficult for many students to figure out what the school might ask of them when they made an admission offer that was theoretically (but not actually) binding.

Late last year, Northeastern’s website featured confusing language: “Students who are in the top 10-15% of our applicant pool will be considered for competitive merit awards.”

I asked the school about this unhelpful jumble of words, and eventually Northeastern changed it. But it made a mistake – and then removed the figure altogether. Incidentally, here’s the right one: In the entry-level class for 2020/21, 59 percent of people who had no financial need still received benefit assistance.

Then why don’t you just say so? “The university is putting much more emphasis on need-based help these days,” Michael Armini, a university spokesman, said in an email. “That’s what I want our messages to focus on.”

So how does Northeastern think about an applicant’s needs when deciding whether to admit them? Are its admissions need-blind or need-aware?

Northeastern caters to all the needs of students from the United States who manage to get in, a fact it rightly boasts of on its website. But when I asked Mr. Armini if ​​solvency might play a role in accepting applicants, he wouldn’t tell me.

So I did what any parent would do and contacted the Admissions and Benefits Offices myself – and got conflicting answers at first. This exacerbates Northeastern’s clarity problem: if it wants to keep important, fundamental information off its site, anyone who picks up the phone should be able to find the correct answer to the questions that ensue.

It wasn’t until I got an email back from a senior member of the Admissions Board that I was sure: Northeastern is need conscious. (Mr. Armini later told me that they carried out the answer from him.)

“Different schools will choose to provide different levels of transparency around financial aid,” Mr. Armini said in an email. “The overwhelming demand for education in the North East continues because we are the world leader in experiential learning, a model that produces excellent outcomes for our students.”

But what if you value not being left in the dark?

Oberlin offers a humane explanation of its “needs-conscious” policy on its website. Tufts puts it bluntly in a blog post. Wesleyan doesn’t mention being aware of his needs on his Affording Wesleyan website, but his president has written about it elsewhere – in 2013.

Improving your messaging is pretty easy. After I searched for American University’s on-demand explainer and couldn’t find one, a spokeswoman told me that the “website is being updated to include this information.”

It’s a reminder that colleges have choices here—even if some make the wrong ones. Take it from the person who first alerted me to the fact that Northeastern was giving me bad information: Debbie Schwartz, a satisfied customer who is the parent of one of their students.

“Just be more transparent,” said Ms Schwartz, who runs the Paying for College 101 Facebook group. “That creates trust and confidence.”

If you’ve suffered from a lack of transparency this admissions season, it’s not too late to ask for more money. I explained this in a 2014 column and updated the advice in the early months of the pandemic in 2020. Be polite and explain any change in circumstances—whether financial, for the worse, or academic, for the better.

And if you’re dreading having to perform that dance in the future, ask for help at the front end no matter where you apply. Fill out the Net Rate Calculators and, if necessary, contact the schools you are considering and ask for an advance version of the performance aid. Mention Whitman or Wooster by name if the person you are speaking to doesn’t think other schools might be able to do something like this.

“It never hurts to ask,” said Megan Ryan, Muhlenberg’s vice president of enrollment management, whose office also performs pre-pricing pricing upon request. “In the worst case, you’re right back where you started.”

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