Kevin Carey a piece this week in Slate debunking the idea of merit-based financial aid is worth reading. With both kids in college this fall, I’ll add to his argument by sharing what I’ve learned about the helping process.
When Boy applied to college a few years ago, Wife and I had been out of the system since college. Over the years, I’ve paid enough attention to know the difference between “blind,” “need-aware,” and “absolutely marketable” use of institutional aid, and I learned the hard way as a student that using “early decision” leaves you more – less at the mercy of one institution. But decades have passed since it was relevant.
The TV was originally set on the University of Michigan, with which we have family ties. (Both my parents went there; that’s where they met.) For context, TB excelled in high school, with high grades in the IB program, varsity letters in track and cross country, and tons of extracurriculars. He also had very high SAT scores. We toured a bunch of places, he applied to a few (I think eight) and we waited.
He was thrilled when he got accepted to Michigan. It was broken a few weeks later when we got a financial aid offer, if you want to call it that. It was either offensive or very funny, depending on your preference. It was a non-starter. It was not a fun conversation. I admit I was blindsided; it didn’t occur to me that they would extend the admission offer based on our desire to live in a tent. This is not how a state institution should behave, even outside the state. But it worked. I even filed an appeal, but it was denied. Apparently, his role would be a “cash cow”. No, thank you.
This confirmed my distrust of the early decision. If he had been accepted through early decision and received this offer, we would have been in a difficult position.
So we turned to the others. I taught him how to read financial aid letters, which in retrospect I wish I had done sooner. I told him to ignore any form of “help” other than grants. Loans must be repaid, and studies are part-time payments. Grants are counted; the rest is simply cost shifting. In the end, the University of Virginia came up with a proposal that, while complicated, made a lot more sense. He went and was happy with his choice. Michigan has its charms, but it’s not the only game in town.
Chastened by the experience, when it was time for the girl to start looking, I reminded her of the TV experience in Michigan and advised her not to choose her “dream” school. It worked about as well as parental advice to teenagers usually does; she decided she belonged [Snooty U]. We toured many colleges, some of which overlapped with the TV list. The tours were helpful in separating colleges that looked the same on paper. The early second choice was way down her list when we saw it; instead of feeling homey or intimate, it felt dead. Several dark horse contenders fared much better, notably U of Pittsburgh and U of Maryland.
[Snooty U] rejected her in what we later learned was his single most election year ever. She took it surprisingly well. This turned out to be her only rejection. Her academics and test scores were even stronger than TB, as were her extracurriculars, even though she didn’t play sports.
As the New Jersey parent might have guessed, the only school she completely ruled out was Rutgers. It wasn’t about Rutgers; she was just determined to get out of New Jersey. Losing my only opportunity in public education was a bit of a shock – not gonna lie – but I recognized the momentum. When I watched in college, when the earth’s crust was still cooling, I refused to watch anything for hours at home. She came to it honestly.
One applicant – I will not name names out of professional courtesy – apparently modeled the financial aid process on Kafka. He asked me to submit the same documentation four times. On the fourth attempt, I wrote in the body of the email that “this is the fourth and last time I am submitting this form”. Whether it lit a fire in them or they were just tired of it, they finally made an offer, but it wasn’t enough to sway the decision. I was relieved. If they were that obstructionist when trying to recruit, I could only imagine how mad they would be if she was committed. This was the same school where the admissions representative told everyone at a well-attended information session that the “optional test” meant they only had to submit scores if they were above a number he specified. It’s a respected school with real appeal, but there were some ugly unforced errors. In contrast, the University of Pittsburgh’s outreach has been consistently excellent. I have to give praise.
The eventual winner, U of Maryland, took a different approach from several others. The rest had sticker prices in the $70-$80k range from which they offered discounts/scholarships. The high sticker price allowed for some impressive scholarship numbers, even with the high price tag at the end. The sticker price was lower in Maryland, so the discount was less. Fortunately, that early learning — just look at the figure that comes from subtracting grants from sticker price — has paid off; although the Maryland discount was less than most, it was from a smaller number, so the total was competitive. (I won’t say “reasonable” because none of the out-of-state was reasonable. But it was competitive.) It also indicated that the discount would renew annually as long as her GPA was good. It starts there in just a few weeks.
Having gone through this process twice in the past few years, I can confirm that Kerry’s description of merit benefits as something closer to airline pricing is correct. As difficult as it may be to convey this to a teenager who has worked hard for years to become an attractive applicant, at some point it’s not all about you. It’s about whether a given school has too many English majors, or too few males, or is trying to build a new hypothetical studies program. Therefore, applicants must reciprocate. Don’t tie everything to one school. Use several and don’t be afraid to compare. This is what they do to you; failure to respond in kind is unilateral disarmament. Viewing the transaction transactionally makes sense. If this school makes a ridiculous offer, you need to be able to reject it. Otherwise, they will become even funnier over time.
At a really basic level, of course, having these options is a real privilege. That message doesn’t always come across as cleanly as it should, but it’s true. It’s unusual just to be able to travel out of state. Yes, TB and TG are smart, hardworking and generally great. They were also lucky. They can be true at the same time. Their merits, however real, rely on economic and social capital to be able to look broadly. To their credit, they seem to know it. In this sense at least, the search process was profoundly educational.