Fairness and Influence in College Admissions

Sharing is caring, right? From an early age we teach children about the importance of treating their friends in ways they want to be treated in return. As they grow older we continue to tell them over and over that all people have the same rights and the same chances to reach their dreams.

As a result, fairness becomes a huge issue for kids. My eight year old says, “But that’s not fair,” approximately 2,374 times each day. At least 2,373 times a day I reply, “Well, life is unfair.”

And so it begins.

This childlike belief in fairness results in one of the most central misconceptions about the admissions process: the widespread assumption that the process is fair, unbiased, and equitable.

Yeah. Right.

For those of you not paying attention or too preoccupied with the latest Paris Hilton scandal, universities are under heavy scrutiny on the fairness issue. It all began last year when a flagship Midwestern university had emails printed in the press revealing blatant influence by politicians in efforts to get unqualified students admitted.

Pardon me while I fail to be shocked by this.

While the particular incident last year was really blatant, politicians (who often control our budgets) advocating for constituents seeking admission to institutions is nothing new. It’s just one small example of the overall unfairness of the admissions process, which (let’s be honest) pretty much reflects the condition of our society.

Shameless Plug: Speaking of political influence, Mason students plan to be among the most politically influential in the country; at least according to Princeton Review and Huffington Post, both of which named Mason among the most top ten most politically active campuses in the country.

Nonetheless, unfairness in admissions is usually less about politics than it is about money. Fair or not, many students get access to better schools and/or grow up in environments where getting a college degree is assumed from birth. Test preparation programs, some argue, tilt the balance to those who can afford them. Tutoring and help with essays are also within reach of the affluent, along with hundreds of other boosts students can get if they can afford them. Let’s face it – it’s just plain better to be rich than poor.

Furthermore, apart from better preparation and guidance opportunities, there are many other seemingly “unfair” considerations that may work for or against students in the process. Admissions officers balance the interests of the institution and its constituents against fairness to applicants. This gets particularly difficult at schools like Mason that are picking from among very highly qualified applicants. A colleague from a similar school once told me, “we could have enrolled the next group of applicants instead, and the profile of the class would have been just as likely to academically succeed.” At that level of competition, influence has greater potential to sneak into the process.

That being said, I believe that Admissions officers, in most cases, do their best in good faith to instill as much fairness into the process as possible. Admissions, however, is focused as much on meeting the goals of a college or university as it is about serving its applicants. The faculty, alumni, and current students all have to be considered. Isn’t it logical for children of alumni and faculty (who are in turn more likely to be long term supporters of the school) to be given advantages in the process? Using the same line of thought, how should admissions consider children, friends, or employees of its major donors?

So no matter what you learned as a toddler, I’m here to tell you that life is often unfair (and, in other news, two plus two still equals four). There are, however, right and wrong ways that this fairness gets applied. Good news: you really don’t need to worry about this – there are PLENTY of great schools that are very likely to admit you even without special influence or connections. More on that when I have time, after I return a call from…well, never mind who.

Be seeing you.


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.

A belated 2009 Year in Review

A belated Happy New Year, or, for those of you who are high school seniors, happy nearing final application deadlines and waiting for colleges to send you their decisions!

As we close out 2009 and head into a bright and shiny new decade, there’s a veritable avalanche of best events, songs, movies, and Michael Jackson tributes of the year. Not wanting to be left out, and based on exacting and exhaustive study and research conducted largely this morning in my recliner, in no particular order here are my favorite admission stories of the year:

1. Score choice – The CollegeBoard reintroduced “score choice” to their system, meaning that test takers and decide which test scores to send out to colleges and universities. This caused great anxiety, although the ACT has had this policy in place for some time. Mostly it caused mayhem and confusion since most students either a) had no idea it was going on or b) if they did, were freaking out over which scores to pick. Add to the mix that many colleges and universities required that you send ALL scores and ignore score choice, and you have a great atmosphere – if you like chaos. This largely fell on overworked high school counselors trying to explain conflicting and often poorly explained policies to very anxious students and parents. For all this fun, the data continues to indicate that score choice has no impact on admission – that schools will continue to use your best scores no matter how many they receive, so the chaos has virtually no purpose at all!

2. Illinois sells admissions – at least, that’s what the headlines indicated. The reality is that some legislators and administrators in Illinois clearly felt, from the tone of their emails, that admission decisions should overlook standards if there was potential to gain money, either from donors or state legislators. On the other hand, the idea that donors or legislators DON’T have ANY influence on the admission process is just silly. The reality is that admissions officers will usually only admit applicants that have qualifications indicating they can likely succeed at our institutions, but at competitive institutions we receive far more qualified applicants than we have admission slots, and institutional self interest does become a factor. How big a factor donor potential (or past giving) or legislative influence…or singing, dancing, or basketball talent…should have in the process is a source of ongoing discussion. From the articles, however, you would think that Illinois invented this idea. And not a single article referenced the college movie classic, “Back to School” with Rodney Dangerfield.

3. Admissions Uncertainty!!! In other news, the media found out – much to their shock and dismay – that admission is unpredictable. They were so blown away by this insight that they continually blamed it on the economy, as if this was some kind of new occurrence. They interviewed students who didn’t know where they would get in and admissions directors agonizing over not knowing who would enroll…which, for some reason they failed to mention this, would have likely been the same responses they would have gotten BEFORE the economic downturn.

4. Colleges offering late discounts – Although the economy didn’t create as much uncertainty as the media hype suggests, many colleges noticed that students were considering less expensive options. Several of the REALLY expensive schools took aggressive steps to respond. My guess is that the discussion among leaders at these expensive schools was something like, “Hey! If we just sit back and let students start picking less expensive schools, the public might realize that there is no rational justification for our incredibly inflated prices, so we’d better get busy and make any offers necessary to hold onto our market position – now pass the caviar and prep my limo.” Or something like that. In any event, many institutions made offers WAY after student commitment deadlines in May, calling students with messages like, “We suddenly realized that we’d really like you to enroll so even though we only offered you two dollars in financial aid before now we can offer you twenty five thousand dollars if you’ll just dump that other school and come here.” Strangely, these offers actually worked pretty well – watch for new stories in 2010 about students who took these offers and now, in their sophomore year, find their financial aid packages back at two dollars.

5. Loss of Jack Blackburn – Jack was a great mentor to hundreds of admissions professionals and among the best minds in the field. As I wrote then, if heaven is well managed, they will move quickly to put Jack in charge of their admission process.

6. Common app gets less and less common – The common application was joined by a few competitors, while the participating schools added even more supplemental forms, individualizing an application meant to be common. Will one size ever really fit all?

7. In one of the great acts of hypocrisy of the year, an article was published attacking colleges and universities that added score optional admission policies as doing so (gasp) in their own self interest. Of course, the author failed to mention that his company was being paid to do a huge contract for “a major testing company.” Seems like a guy who would be great in the Illinois legislature.

8. Headlines were made that you could predict how much you would make partially based on what school you attend, although if you bother to read the articles, like this one http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424052748703438404574597952027438622-lMyQjAxMDA5MDEwODExNDgyWj.html they actually say that which college you attend still doesn’t have much, if any, influence on future income – it’s all about your talent and your achievements (and if they studied this as well, how much money your family already has).

9. Privacy was a hot topic again on many fronts. Gossip sites about colleges came and went. High schools gained access to posting a lot more information about who admitted students with what scores and grades through their data systems, creating horrifically misleading information for future applicants since the scores and grades weren’t linked and had no context. Students continued to “friend” admissions officers than post wildly inappropriate content to their Facebook pages, leading some admissions officers to the shocking conclusion that some high school students may, at times, break rules. Some admissions officers claimed to be conducting exhaustive searches of Facebook for negative content on applicants, leading them to be awarded the “creepy adults” of the year award. Better yet, a couple of stories surfaced on applicants and their parents posting false and misleading information about OTHER applicants, believing that they would increase their chances for admission if they could stick it to other students. Isn’t technology wonderful?

10. At the very end of the year a story popped up indicating that women are WAY smarted than men. It didn’t say EXACTLY that, but it did say that there are a far more women than men in higher education, and that this is a source of great anxiety for schools where they are desperately lacking men. A number of colleges boldly spoke up and announced that they were advantaging men over women in their admissions process to counteract this inequity. This led to a civil rights investigation, and I suspect to a new industry. I’m expecting that it won’t be long before I get a message asking, “Is your college having trouble finding a man? We can help…”.

On to 2010, where I’m sure we’ll find new and even more misleading stories for my rants! 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.