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Financial Aid

05/20/02 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(Host) According to Allen Gilbert, the hardest part of college isn't getting in. It's paying for it.

(Gilbert) A friend called the other week. His daughter, a high school senior, knew where she wanted to go to college. She had applied to the school in the fall as a so-called "early decision" candidate. She found out in December that she was in. Under the rules of the early decision process, she withdrew applications from all other schools. Her eggs were now in one basket.

That basket turned out to be a fragile one. She hadn't heard from the school about financial aid. How would the nearly $30,000 annual bill be paid? Based on the financial aid that her sister had gotten at another school a few years earlier, the family - not very wealthy - thought they were in a good position. And the school had said not to worry.

But in April the family received news that did make them worry - a lot. The school said that she would get no aid, other than a tiny bit of money she'd have to earn through a work-study program. And oh yes, she had to take out the maximum amount of student loans, and the family had to come up with the rest - through parent education loans, if necessary. In other words, the student was getting no grants or scholarships from the school. She and her family were responsible for nearly the entire $30,000 yearly bill - $120,000 over four years.

The family protested. And it was then that they found out a dirty little secret. The school doesn't give grants or scholarships to students who don't graduate in the top 30% of their high school class. In other words, financial need is not the school's first consideration in giving out aid; the first consideration is academic merit.

And in this case, the determination of merit didn't seem fair. My friend's daughter missed the "top third" cut-off by a hair. She had taken challenging courses, and at her school all grades are weighted equally. An "A" in general math counts the same as an "A" in advanced calculus. Her SAT scores showed that she was a very strong student.

The system of financial aid was started a half century ago to help students whose families couldn't afford to send them to college. But today, some colleges use financial aid as a marketing tool. They offer cash to get the best students - even though a student's family may be wealthy enough to pay the whole college bill. Colleges are caught in a ratings game. Their financial futures can depend on whether they rise or fall in the U.S. News and World Report annual college survey. The more incoming students who are in the top third of their high school class, the more selective the school looks and the higher its rating. The higher its rating, the more attractive it is to families who can afford to pay a greater percentage of the full price. It's just like filling an airplane -- while selling the seats at the highest price possible. At most schools today, the admissions and financial aid offices are thought of as one operation called "enrollment management."

My friend isn't sure what her daughter will be doing in the Fall. But the family is much the wiser after getting caught in the vice of the financial aid game.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer an parent who is active in education issues.

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