Why and how do universities offer scholarships before I apply?

I returned from the national admissions conference to a slew of questions about our scholarship standards, mostly from prospective applicants wanting to know RIGHT NOW (before applying, before we’ve started reviewing any applicants) whether or not they will receive a scholarship.  Given the financial climate, that may not be surprising, but I think it’s also related to changes in the information colleges and universities supply about our scholarships.

Many many years ago, when colleges were less cut throat, there was a universal agreement not to guarantee scholarships before students applied, as the awards sounded way too much like we were trying to buy your interest, and most colleges felt this was the wrong impression for schools to give.

But times have changed.

Now it’s common practice to get around this agreement by giving very specific numbers where students will get awards – even though colleges know these numbers (rank/gpa) are radically different by school or (SAT/ACT) mean very little from an academic standpoint (although a lot from a rankings standpoint).  Some go so far as to send award letters to students who haven’t even applied based on scores and self reported grades you supply when you fill out the SAT/ACT forms.


Mason still doesn’t print criteria because we still review scholarships candidates the way we review applicants, by reading their applications. Of course, higher GPA/SAT/rank all count significantly, but we also bear in mind the strength of their program and, to a much lesser degree, essays and recommendations. Personally, I think that’s how it should work.  I also hope that, although Mason costs a lot less than the other DC area schools, that students will explore all of the schools that might be a good match, and wait to see how scholarships and financial aid end up before making a decision.

But this may be unrealistic.  The truth is that many of you will decide very early in your senior year, some even in junior year, which schools will make your “apply” list.  Knowing that is the case, universities rush to influence you any way we can, and one of those ways is by dangling money in front of you.  This leads to a lot of pressure to raise tuition in order to offer more scholarships, a practice called “discounting” (we NEVER call it that when we talk to applicants, or parents, or legislators – but we talk about it ALL the time when we admissions officers get together at conferences).

After all this my colleagues spend a lot of time wringing their hands about how the whole process is more adversarial, and how students treat us like the stereotypes of used car salesmen. They seem genuinely surprised that such tactics increase the sense that this is more a business transaction than an academic decision.

In my dream world of admissions, you’re all savvy enough to see right through all of that hoopla, and continue to carefully consider which schools are the right match weighing the dollars as one factor. Also, we have flying cars.  mmmmmm.

Once we get into the admission/financial aid/scholarship award season (February and March) I’ll add some detail on how universities manipulate these awards, and what (if anything) you can do about it.  Be seeing you.


4 Responses

  1. Students (and Parents) – NEVER tell a college or university that you are going to attend the school that provides the best financial aid offer. If you do, do not be surprised if the institution says there is nothing more they can do.

    We want students that want to attend our institutions, not treating the college search process like they’re looking for a used car. The value of a degree from ABC College with a major in “this” might be worth paying a little extra. Or maybe XYZ University has a great program in “that” and you need to determine if the degree is worth the extra costs.

    I see too many students transferring from my institution who were awarded full tuition scholarships to other schools because they are not happy here. Parents forced them to attend our school because it was the cheapest. On the flip side, I also see a number of students that transfer to my university because they are unhappy elsewhere. The major problem though, now they qualify for very little scholarship $$$ because most institutions make the better financial aid awards for the incoming freshmen.

    My institution is like the old Southwest Airlines jingle- “Nobody loves you, or your money, like Southwest Airlines.” Remember that? Well, nobody loves transfer students, or their money, like my institution.

  2. what am supposed to do inorder to get a scholarship in your institution?

    • There’s no magic to getting a scholarship – colleges use scholarships to attract students that will contribute something to their institutions – whether in sports, academics, the arts, or some other area. This may be as simple as having the highest stats, if that’s what a school is trying to get.
      Mason reviews all applicants who apply by the scholarship deadline and request a review for scholarship. Like many publics, we don’t award all that many scholarships since we already cost less than most schools – you might have noticed, for instance, that Mason is the only school in D.C. named on both Kiplingers and Princeton Review’s Best Values lists – probably because we cost about half what our competition charges!

  3. Wha are the qualifications of getting a scholarship in your institution?

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