Money for College -the finale!

For the most part, admissions and financial aid are honorable professions. My colleagues are generally very ethical people who strive to help students and deeply believe in the importance of their mission and the service they provide.

That being said, sometimes their work this time of year – the months that colleges and universities package financial aid – can seem a little dirty. I’m not talking DIRTY – I’ve yet to hear about a colleague finding a way to engineer financial aid kickbacks or helping the cartels launder money through financial aid. Clearly, however, the process is neither transparent nor easy to understand. For years I’ve listened to my colleagues cry that we’re NOT used car dealers (by the way, I know some very ethical car dealers), but in the end, it comes down to a basic question for most families:

Can we negotiate/change the amount we’ll pay for school?

The very idea that costs, grants, scholarships, and other fiscal issues are malleable raises a slew of questions, and the massive lack of understanding and transparency inspires theories of graft and corruption.

Despite these concerns, there are many very legitimate reasons why financial aid packages and scholarship offers change. The most likely culprit is changing family circumstances. If there’s a significant loss of income – changes in job status or health are the usual sources – financial aid offices have discretion to make adjustments to financial aid packages to reflect changes in your family’s need level. On the merit side, huge change in your academic profile (a massively higher standardized test score, a huge upturn in your grades) can, on rare occasions, lead to a larger scholarship award.

There are, however, less savory reasons schools might shift your offer. In the end, most of these come down to decisions about institutional income and profile. If a school wants your money and thinks they won’t get you without a “discount,” they might be more inclined to up their offer.

Last year, a blind panic erupted in many high-priced schools that the economic downturn would wreak enrollment havoc. As a result, there was a bizarre period where some expensive colleges and universities were sending admitted students new improved financial packages before the students had a chance to ask. In many cases, this happened long after the students had committed to other institutions, creating a delightful atmosphere of seediness and desperation and magnifying impressions that everything in admissions and financial aid is negotiable.


In reality, most schools aren’t going to make any adjustments to the aid they provide and for very very very good reasons. Nevertheless, some do, and before you try to squeeze these institutions, you need to be aware of some realities in the situation. Even at the schools that routinely play these games, negotiation only works in your favor if the school REALLY wants you. If you’re just an average joe for them, they’re not likely to break the bank to enroll you. It’s also helpful if you have unmet need (or need being only met with loans/workstudy). Somehow it makes those schools feel better to change a need award than to add more scholarship. For such schools, and on the rare instances where it happens, it usually works like this:
You had $1000 in need, got $200 in scholarships, $100 in grants, and $700 in loan. You let them know you REALLY want to go there, but too much of your package consists of a loan to afford it while this other school you like ALMOST as much has been more generous (be prepared to prove that!). They come back and say, “Wow, you were right, that is a lot of loan – fortunately we really like you and can give you $300 in scholarships and $200 in grants and now your loan is just $500.” Isn’t that swell?

Now add a WHOLE bunch of zeros and you get the idea.

Most schools won’t participate in this kind of nonsense. The reality is that these kinds of games aren’t generally allowed with money from the state or federal government, so it’s usually only high tuition schools using part of their outrageous cost as discounts to recruit students that can afford these strategies. Instead, most institutions package as well as they can from the start, except in cases of radical changes in family income or profile as described above. Keep that in mind, so when a school tells you they won’t negotiate but still love you, you won’t be mad at them for being transparent, up front, and ethical.

Speaking of ethics, I really had to stretch to work a shameless plug in a around this topic! Fortunately two of our prominent faculty members recently published on somewhat, slightly related subjects. One has a book on the public policy issues around the use of techniques considered as torture; another published a study in conjunction with Yale researchers on how people tend to support conservation but few practice it. On reflection, they’re not really all that related.

One last gasp of worry about the scary things colleges and universities do to shake your confidence: it is worth asking how your financial aid will be calculated for all four years and whether your second or third year support will likely be less (even a lot less) attractive than what they offered you as an incoming freshmen. In particular, watch out for one year scholarships in the fine print. And keep in mind, most of the schools are being really honest and up front with you. Trust me. Be seeing you.


Money for College 3 – of red tape and “need”

As the giant mountains for snow slowly transform to great gray mushy globs, it’s time for a similarly mushy subject: need-based aid.

But first, a Shameless Plug! I couldn’t think of any way to connect this to today’s topic, but I am thrilled that one of my heroes, Dr. Thomas Lovejoy, has joined the George Mason University faculty. He has a whole slew of academic accolades and accomplishments, but I’ll admit to knowing him best as the founder of the PBS show, “Nature,” which is, according to the linked article, “the most popular long-term series on public television.”

Need-based aid is, for the most part, determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or, in street lingo, FAFSA. Actually, it would more likely be “FAFSizzle”, but that’s not important right now. The U.S. Department of Education works hard every year to make the form easier, but the truth is that any way you cut it the form is going to be somewhat time consuming and confusing. On the upside, lots of the information you’ll need is the same as what you’ll put together for your family’s taxes. As a result, the year you are applying for college is a great year to get your taxes done early.

Once you submit the FAFSA, the Department of Education works much magic to come up with your Estimated Family Contribution, or EFC. The EFC is how much the government believes you can afford to pay for college. You can do the estimate yourself – just decide how much you can afford to pay for college and assume it’s a lot more than that.

While the government is deciding how much you can pay, the colleges are reporting how much we cost. Our Total Cost includes room, board, books, tuition, and fees. The basic equation that drives the financial aid system is Total Cost minus EFC equals NEED, the amount of money the government believes you need to afford college. Colleges then try to meet your need in four ways: scholarships, grants, loans, and workstudy.

You’d think that would make things really clear. That’s, however, when it gets REALLY complicated. Each college will have a different mix, higher or lower percentages of scholarships and grants compared to loans and workstudy. And they all have different Total Costs. Bottom line – it can take a lot of time and careful examination to determine exactly what each institution is planning to charge you.

Next up: all the many many many ways your scholarships, financial aid, and costs can change. Be seeing you.

Post-Snowmageddon, Money for College Part deux

Now that digging out from the snow has ensured that my chiropractor’s kids can all afford any college, it’s time to continue helping the rest of you.

The last column covered basic merit-based scholarships, and while these are the bulk of the awards, they are not the only ones. No matter how incredible your academic record, you’ll likely be shocked when that kid who slept all through junior year gets a larger scholarship from the same school. How is this possible? Just remember, scholarships are awarded to help colleges and universities get the students they want to enroll, not to be fair, just, or even reasonable.

Non-academic talent scholarships are probably the easiest to understand. Athletic awards tend to be the best known, along with scholarships in the performing arts (and you can add forensics and other special extra-curriculars to that mix – Shameless plug: Mason’s forensics team continues to have one of the strongest wining records in the nation!). Of course, those tend to be focused on actual talent and what you can do for the team/program/department – so the question is whether the school is looking for a basketball guard or a shot putter, a male dancer or double-reeded instrument player, etc. These are nearly always awarded by the individuals that run those programs: coaches, artistic directors, team directors, etc. While admissions offices will occasionally refer students, in general you want to be in touch with the people that run that team/program/department directly to find out about any funding opportunities in your area of talent. Note: athletic recruitment is a bizarre and complex process – check out the NCAA clearinghouse website for more information.

There are two additional sources of merit-based funds, although neither is nearly as large as the academic and talent awards noted above. The first are donor-based scholarships administered by colleges and universities. These, by and large, are created when someone decides to give money to an institution to assist some group of students they like, or who they feel are like themselves. These can be as basic as strong students in a particular major, or as bizarre as students from a particularly zip code with a certain hair color with experience in both quilting and raising bees. Many of these awards are based on college performance (so open only to students already at the institution) or on financial need (which I’ll go into in one of my next columns). The awards that are open to prospective students are usually listed on the financial aid or admissions websites and/or, on rarer occasions, in the university catalog.

Many external organizations also offer scholarships. There are a variety of websites to help search for these, and your school guidance counselor(s) often have lists of local awards. Beware of any individual or organization that tries to get you to pay to qualify for these funds. Most, if not all, are scams – the information on legitimate awards is readily available online and is nearly always free, although you will often have to hand over your contact information so that the web sites can then sell them back to the colleges, universities and, at times, credit card companies that are, of course, only using the data in your best interests (cue laugh track).

One other way to get that “How in a rational universe is it possible for THAT KID to get a SCHOLARSHIP” feeling: there are an increasing number of offers from very expensive private colleges and universities billed as “scholarships” awarded to students who, to put it bluntly, are shocked to qualify for any award. This is one of the great mysteries/super-secret marketing efforts of the college funding process: many expensive schools know they can charge less and still make money. Of course, it wouldn’t look nearly as impressive if they sent a letter out saying, “You’re not all that academically impressive, but we realize our cost is CRAZY high, and we need a certain amount of students paying SOMETHING to keep paying the gas bills for heating our jacuzzi, so here’s a coupon for a few thousand off our cost. You’ll still pay WAY more than many other schools, but don’t let that worry you.” You can see how that kind of honesty might slow down enrollment. SO much better to call it a scholarship.

Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education has an article noting that some private institutions have gotten REALLY aggressive about this since the economic downtown. One admissions director admitted (bragged) that, when she realized in April that institutional enrollment deposits weren’t what she had hoped, she sent out new, bigger awards to the people who hadn’t yet deposited. What a great feeling that must be for their most enthusiastic and committed students that deposited early. Those lucky students will get to pay more – but since they love the school, I’m sure they’re not bitter about that at all. Be seeing you.

Money for College, part I, in preparation for the snowpocalypse

As I sit here preparing to wage war on the snowy elements, another skirmish comes to mind. Following closely behind the frenzied battle arena that we lovingly call the admissions process is the every-bit-as-stressful and, if possible, even less well understood challenge of seeking funding for college.

I’m by no means a financial expert (really – ask anyone) and will make no attempt to guide you on investment strategies, fiscal positioning, or appropriate debt loads (which, since we’re in the D.C. area, appear to be fine as long as your within one or two trillion dollars of your target). Since even the basic terms we use in the funding for college process can be confusing, however, I’ll use this and the next couple of posts to provide a broad overview of the college funding process (unless, as usual, I get distracted along the way).

Although we call them by LOTS of confusing names, there are really just two basic types for funding support for college that doesn’t come out of your family’s pocket: merit-based and need-based aid.

Merit-based aid is awarded for something you are, have done, or might yet do. It includes, for the most part, what we typically call “scholarships.” Scholarships can be awarded for being a great student, a great athlete, or a great artist. They could also, as I’ll explain further, be awarded for being the only one-eyed, red-haired, tuba playing engineering student at some particular school, although that’s obviously less likely.

The vast majority of merit-based aid is used, to put it bluntly, to buy students. A nicer take is that colleges have goals for our incoming students. We want them to be smart, talented, popular, and, preferably, incredibly successful with a tendency toward long-term donations. As a result, we offer discounts to those students we want most. Calling them discounts, however, would conjure up unfortunate images of clipping coupons and/or car sales, so we use the far more civilized “scholarship” term to make everyone feel better.

It’s important to understand that, in general, admissions officers try really hard to be fair in our admission decisions. Fairness, however, can take a pretty good smackdown when it comes to scholarships. That’s because institutional goals often have more to do with perception – building institutional reputation – than student achievement/quality. Many schools, for instance, never ADMIT that they grant scholarships based on just test scores, and yet offer merit-based aid for national merit semi-finalist status, an award based on…wait for it…just a test score. In general, test scores tend to be WAY more important in scholarships than in the general admission decisions, as is rank-in-class and grade point average (often of the weighted variety). While not universally true, these measures gain more traction in most scholarship award processes as colleges seek to improve measures that raise their rankings profile and/or reputation.

Shameless plug: Speaking of reputation, one of my favorite recent graduates sent me a Facebook message early this week letting me know she had TURNED DOWN the FBI position she was offered (and for which I had recommended her) because the job she took with the company where she interned is SO AMAZING that she’s decided to stay with them. Yes, there are THAT many opportunities in the Mason/D.C. area!!

Most academic scholarships are awarded based on documents you complete when you apply for admission. Some schools have no additional paperwork and just use the admission application. Others (like Mason) add additional essays while others have a completely distinct scholarship application. These differences don’t necessarily have anything to do with how hard or easy it is to get awards – the processes just differ from school to school, so be sure to check carefully for any supplemental questions or documents you might need to complete.

Next up, the answer to the burning question, “How in the heck did THAT kid get a scholarship!!!??!!!” to be followed soon after by, “Is it possible that need-based aid could be ANY more complicated!?!”. Be seeing you.

More humbug – admit letters CAUSE stress

Most of you probably assume that getting your applications submitted and receiving your admission letters will relieve all that overwhelming stress you’ve been feeling. That’s definitely the way it should be (and I’m sure is, if you were lucky enough to be admitted to Mason). Unfortunately an increasing number of colleges have found new and inventive ways to screw that up. To explain, a holiday parable:

Once upon a time, college and university admissions officers had a great idea. These wonderful caring individuals thought students should have the crucial information they need to make up their minds about which college or university to attend before any decision deadline. These fine, upstanding admissions leaders felt that those students should have a reasonable amount of time to do so, and should be able to do so without risking losing money or the best dorm room or being threatened by letters that sound like they were drafted by former mafia goons who have gone to work for creditor services.

And so, in a fit of compassion and reason, the colleges and universities agreed on the May 1 deadline – an agreement that, no matter when colleges and univeristies admitted freshmen, the students would have until May 1 to make up their minds. This was particularly important since most colleges and universities can’t get out financial aid information until late March or early April, and a month seemed fair.

Ah, the good old days. Then…or so the story goes…a few admissions officers had an idea. They had an awful idea. (With respect to Dr. Seuss) They had a wonderful, awful idea. The colleges and universities would SAY that students could use the May 1 deadline, but at the same time send very threatening letters. These sneaky admissions officers would claim that they just MIGHT not have ENOUGH space so that they just HAVE to force students to choose sooner. Sure, they know that this is especially unfair to the students inexperienced with the process, with the lowest income and overcoming the most challenges – but hey, they have budgets to meet. So off they went, asking students to commit earlier and earlier, and then refusing to refund deposits when they were sent in haste in response to their threats.

They’d even, I suspect, keep the last can of Who Hash.

Yes, I’m calling them Grinches. Too subtle?

Here’s where I send out a challenge. I’m sticking to the May 1 deadline. I’m so convinced that Mason is the right place for a lot of you and that you can make a good decision given time and good information that I’m willing to take that risk. Some colleges will send you an admit letter that reads like a chain letter, “you’d better send us money RIGHT NOW or else bad things will happen…Elmira Jones of Paducah, Kentucky failed to send in her deposit. She ended up with no room on campus, early Friday morning classes, and her cat died the next day. Don’t let this happen to you.” If you follow my logic, institutions that put on this pressure probably, while I can’t be one hundred percent sure, suck. They suck the life right out of you. That’s right – colleges that break the May 1 deadline could, just possibly, be entirely populated by soulless vampires. I realize that will be incredibly appealing to the Twi-hards in the audience.

For the rest of you, however, I encourage you to stand up for yourselves. If and when a college puts on this kind of pressure, push back. Tell them you want to be guaranteed you won’t lose a good spot if you wait for May 1 to get a chance to compare your options and see your aid packages. And if they won’t, tell them their hearts must be, at least, two sizes too small. And then come to Mason. Be seeing you.

Family wealth and admission

It’s breaking news!!! The admissions process isn’t fair! I know so because The Washington Post had a big article recently (ok, April, but I’ll admit I didn’t notice until one of our readers forwarded it to me for comment) on the subject. Their intrepid reporter, after what I’m sure was a grueling round of research involving at least three phone calls, uncovered the previously untold story that rich kids have an advantage in the admissions process.

I know, shocking. Take a moment to recover your composure. I’ll wait.

The article specifically cites the advantage that rich kids have on the SAT, blaming access to test preparation courses. The author fails to mention that 1) the SAT isn’t NEARLY as important to the admissions process as the reporter seems to think or that 2) the rich are advantaged in the admissions process for a whole bunch of OTHER reasons.

Even those of you who don’t get to obsess about admissions the way I do are probably able to guess that access to tutors, not just test tutors but the kind that might actually teach you stuff; personal college counseling; parents who have been through the system (or better yet, are graduates of your dream school; or even better have their name on a building at your dream school) is likely to give one a leg up over less affluent applicants.

Worse, the article totally misses one of the great secrets of the admissions process – that there are many competitive institutions that actually look at higher family income as a plus factor in the admissions process. This started a few years back when the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, of which I am a proud and long-time member, decided that we really liked rich kids. I’m kidding of course (mostly). The discussion was actually focused on whether admissions offices could use financial aid data in the admissions process.

Once upon a time, admissions offices were supposed to be “need-blind.” This meant that we were supposed to evaluate students based on their academic records (or jump shot), and not on how much an applicant might be able to pay. Some very good-hearted people claimed this made admissions way too hard since they ended up admitting way too many students without money that needed way too much financial aid, which meant less money for everyone. So instead, said these Samaritans, we will review their financial aid information and admit fewer of the really poor kids (or more of the really wealthy ones) – that way everyone has more money. Isn’t that wonderful!?

If you find the math doesn’t work for you, you’re not alone. Soon, however, you’ll go to college where you’ll learn “numbers” can be guided by “spin”.

To be fair, most colleges really are still need-blind…usually. Where you see the most impact of the change is in waitlist decisions: students with high need may be disadvantaged, especially in a year like this one when many schools went very deep into their aid budgets to try to attract their top recruits. A handful, however (and these are generally not the more moderately priced institutions), use income aggressively in the admissions process right from the start. Mason, I’m proud to say, remains need-blind in our admissions process, but there’s no doubt that the market pressure to make changes in the policy are an annual consideration.

So to recap – money good. More money better. Talent best of all. Be seeing you.

Admitted, but pressured to commit and deposit too soon? Tell them to go to…school

For many of you, the most stressful part of the admissions process happens AFTER you apply. First, the waiting, hoping for the thicker envelope (or the email with more megabytes), wondering how a bunch of people you don’t know can have so much to say about what you get to do next year.

So then you get an admit (I hope). Unfortunately, there are some institutions that are then going to cause you some new stress. In general, colleges and universities give you until May 1st of your senior year to make up your mind on which school you want, and ask you to submit a deposit by then. If you submit a commitment with a deposit early, it’s supposed to be refundable until May 1, and you shouldn’t miss out on any spots in housing, orientation, or registration by waiting until May 1. That gives you time to compare scholarships and aid, and hopefully visit the schools and decide which one is right for you. The May 1 date is a national agreement among colleges and universities brokered years ago by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, and one of the few policies that really and truly operates just to protect applicants.


A handful of schools (lets call then Immoral, Corrupt, and just plan Bad Universities) try to game that process. The process (you can call it a scam. Go ahead. I do) runs like this: You get, usually in your admission packet, a request for your to commit with a sizable deposit AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. There are vague threats (housing is limited, spaces in orientation are assigned in the order you deposit, you can only have this scholarship if you send us your deposit tomorrow, late depositers never get invited to the best parties freshman year), and no mention of having until May 1, or that anything is refundable.

For the most part, this stuff is a bluff. Odds are if you call the on it, they’ll give you until May 1 to deposit and promise not to mess with your housing, registration, orientation, etc. You might reference the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, and your very innocent and wholesome intention to report (very pulbicly to everybody you know) that they are in clear violation of that group’s policy. You might also mention that if they are really worth attending, they probably shouldn’t have to resort to threats in order to get you to come to their school, that if they really can’t give you time to consider options, maybe they would be more comfortable with a career selling aluminum siding.

OK, maybe that last line would be going a bit far.

Of course, Mason gives you until May 1. We do assign housing on a first come basis, but there is a free, no commitment application for housing you can fill out any time, and housing is guaranteed for all freshmen that deposit by May 1. Everyone should, if they are as confident in their schools as we are in ours. But maybe their schools are really awful. I feel so bad for them…not.

Be seeing you.