College admissions and financial aid: Do rich kids win again?

Sara Harberson is the founder of AdmissionsRevolution.com, former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, and former dean of admissions and financial aid at Franklin & Marshall College.

With many high school seniors completing their college applications over this holiday week, I thought this was a timely topic.

By Sara Harberson

We didn’t have a national championship football team. We had a football field, but it sure wasn’t a stadium. We didn’t even have a real mascot.

Though we weren’t known for our tailgating, we have a whole lot to be proud of. My alma mater, Hamilton College, made news recently when the Huffington Post chronicled how the school funneled millions of dollars into its financial aid program in order to ensure that no student would ever be denied admission simply because of their socioeconomic status.

For those in the admissions field, Hamilton’s decision to become “need-blind” several years ago is a huge deal. For those kids in high school and their parents wondering if they’ll have enough money for college, take note. Hamilton is one of only a few dozen colleges in the country that have a need-blind admissions policy. It is not only rare; it is the mark of a truly elite college because it eliminates financial barriers to make higher education an option.

There’s a reason students go to colleges like Hamilton. It attracts great kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds. High-achieving low and middle-income students are not disadvantaged in a need-blind admissions process. High-achieving wealthy students are more attracted to a place like Hamilton because they know that’s where the best students go. When there is a level playing field and the best students get admitted regardless of their financial situation, a college soars and so do its students. While I’m not someone focused purely on rankings, U.S. News & World Report ranked Hamilton No. 14 this past year on its list of national small liberal arts colleges. Not too shabby for a place without a fancy football stadium.

The lack of a premium stadium is part of the reason for Hamilton’s stellar reputation. That’s not to say there aren’t great stadiums at other need-blind institutions. There are. But a college that invests in financial aid, specifically need-based financial aid, has made a deliberate choice. Hamilton chose to invest in its students rather than a new building or facility.

As a former dean of admissions of another small liberal arts college, I know firsthand what it takes to pull off what Hamilton did. Its Board of Trustees stepped up and agreed to donate at least $500,000 each to ensure that a lack of money would never be a reason to deny a student ever again. If you’re wondering what trustees of a college do, it has a lot to do with giving money at the right time for the right causes. When a college is need-blind in its admissions process, it is able to admit students based on merit and personal qualities rather than whether they need financial aid.

There is a huge difference between a need-blind college and a need-aware college. The most jaw dropping is that at a need-aware college, students who apply for financial aid have a different standard for admission than students who don’t. In a need-aware environment, the “haves” are separated from the “have nots.”

0317artStudents with extraordinary academic achievement who qualify for financial aid are put into one pile. Students who are deemed “full pay,” or in other words don’t need financial aid, are put into another pile. At a need-aware college, full-pay students are much more likely to be admitted even if their qualifications are significantly lower.

Money is still what opens doors for many, even in higher education. The cynics may say getting into college is no different from getting a job, internship, or contract just because you have the money, power, and connections to do so. But access to education is supposed to be egalitarian. If we want to be the most powerful nation, should we just educate the wealthy in our country? Is college just for the privileged few?

Fortunately, colleges need all types of students — even those with little to no financial capability. They see the reality every day. There aren’t enough “full pay” students who can afford $60,000 a year. And, even though students and their families can sometimes take out more loans, the financial burden becomes extraordinary. Cost becomes the ultimate deterrent to the average family considering college options.

Most colleges haven’t made the expensive and necessary step to invest in financial aid to deal with the changing demographics of the college bound population. But if they don’t do something now, they will be forced to do something later and at a much higher cost. The time has come for colleges to be the best they can be. Prospective students might be impressed by a football stadium; but they and their families are much more likely to be impressed by an offer of admission at an elite college with a financial aid package that makes attending that school a reality.

Financial aid is as patriotic as tailgating and college football. There is nothing more important to our younger generation than education. That’s not to say the football team must go. Heck, I’d be the first to complain if that happened.

But if we don’t start investing in the students from all walks of life, who will hold up the heavy pillars of America’s Ivory Towers? Without sufficient financial aid, colleges will see their very foundations crumble without the brawn and brains of the very best students to hold them up for many generations to come.

Reader Comments 0

34 comments
hamgrad
hamgrad

Even at Hamilton college, also my alma mater, need blind means they will award you what the FAFSA says you need, which any middle class family knows is a joke. At Hamilton about 50% of students get financial aid, so the other 50% is able to afford over $60,000 a year. If you think that is representative of the smart kids out there you're dreaming. These colleges need to quit competing on fancy facilities and get their prices down. Hamilton may not have a fancy football stadium, but they have an Olympic size swimming pool, a two story rock climbing wall, a golf course, a sushi bar, and so many new buildings that their green space is almost gone. The schools that are more affordable these days for strong middle class students are those who award merit aid. I know because we have very recently been through the process.  My daughter goes to a similar school to Hamilton with a much better mix of students because merit aid is available to those who fall through the cracks with the FAFSA.

Mustang100
Mustang100

We have a friend who's always bragging about her daughter's B.S., uh, B.A. degree in Liberal Arts. It got her a job clerking in a local Macy's in the Children's Dept. She owes 122k in loans.

all_i_am_saying_is
all_i_am_saying_is

Higher education is a business and as the article notes the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities are not 'need blind' with admissions.  


Some of you are very naive.  


The non-need blind college and universities value 'full pay' students and will lower their standards to get a higher percentage of them.  Those students and their parents are their best 'customers' paying full freight freshman-senior year or however long it takes to finish.



Starik
Starik

@all_i_am_saying_is On the other hand, some private universities (Harvard, Yale, Emory, and no doubt others have very large endowments and should be "need blind." They can afford it.  State universities, taxpayer funded, have a limited number of scholarships available because they, except for the football/basketball team of course don't have the money.

irishmafia1457
irishmafia1457

Yeah because we don't spend enough on remedial classes in college already ! So many that should not even be in college ! Don't get me started on the useless degrees that have been promoted just to say someone has a college degree. A Master's is the new bachelors and even that has been watered down so much, it doesn't mean a whole lot anymore.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@irishmafiahigs 

At least in the University of System of Georgia schools, the only remedial courses now offered are in the 2-year "access colleges."

Starik
Starik

Rich kids always win. They always have, always will.  There's always Harvard and Yale if your parents are powerful, like the Bushes, and Oglethorpe if they're not.

Starik
Starik

@Bitcoined Another good example. Money. Power. Affirmative Action.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Starik @Bitcoined 

Nice racial microaggression, implying that Obama's daughters would never be good enough to be admitted on their own, but only admitted because they're black.

Bitcoined
Bitcoined

Why not example the Obamas, whose daughters attend posh Sidwell Friends and will no doubt go Ivy League for college?

Starik
Starik

@OriginalProf @Starik @Bitcoined No, that's not my implication. Those kids are probably admitted because of their high qualifications and the status of having a Presidential father, not their race. If Obama's daughters had mediocre grades and test scores - I doubt that's the case - and Obama had never run for office but was wealthy I would object.


My objection to affirmative action is that a black kid with a wealthy family will get preferential treatment over a white or Asian poor kid. Affirmative Action needs the numbers, and would rather admit a black child of two MDs or PhDs over a better qualified white or Asian child of a single mother who waits tables. 


Think about it.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@Starik @OriginalProf @Bitcoined 

I have thought about it.  Are you really saying that Obama's children would only get into those schools because of Affirmative Action, i.e., because they're African American? That's your implication.

Starik
Starik

@OriginalProf @Starik @Bitcoined No, race seems to blind you.  I don't know how qualified the kids are, but my guess would be that they're very well qualified. The kids would get into these schools because their daddy is a powerful politician.  The same would happen if daddy were very, very wealthy.  Why should the black child of a two-parent family, both of the MDs, get admission preference over the white child of a single mother who is a waitress, with higher class standing and test scores?  I see racism. Racism shouldn't be applied to cure the effects of past racism.

Starik
Starik

@Legong Well, the very rich are the ones engaging in class warfare. And winning.

Legong
Legong

Fomenting class warfare, not reforming admissions policies, is what motivates both the article's author and the blog editor.

marney
marney

This post raises an interesting point...that most private colleges take it upon themselves to deny admission where they KNOW that they can't give enough aid to make attendance a reasonable possibility.   They game it their way and the poorer applicants or weaker students game it the other way by using the "common app." to apply to 20 schools where in past years when they had to write individual applications they might have only done 3 or 4.   I am not sure i consider either side evil in this game....      


A tiny college must have reasonable certainty of the count of who will actually come and this seems a logical way of getting a high percentage of those accepted to actual attend.      I would commend them for choosing this over football, but it is not clear to me whether the "everyone else" that  she claims is giving rich kids preference actually is true for large publicly universities---especially given the political scrutiny that their admissions processes are given.


Can anyone answer that question?

Lee_CPA2
Lee_CPA2

Hamilton is a small private school (1850 students) and is fairly selective with the median SAT/ACT scores about 4% higher than Emory.  100% of the students live on campus and the total cost of attendance is $57,000, which is comparable to Emory's on campus cost of $58,000.

The fact remains that you do not have to spend nearly $250,000 to obtain a college education.  In-state, on campus cost at Georgia's public institutions are around $23,000 per year and the HOPE Scholarship can cover a large chunk of that depending on the student's academic achievement level.  There are also numerous community colleges in which a student can take their core classes at a much reduced cost while living at home.  The "needs based" student has plenty of options to obtain a college education.

Bottom line, colleges such as Hamilton and Emory are not economically feasible for the majority of low and middle income families.  Who in the hell wants to graduate college with $200k worth of student loan debt?  Not me.

CSpinks
CSpinks

@Lee_CPA2 4($23K - covered large chuck) =  An amount of money likely to dissuade a high percentage of bright students from below-median income families from matriculating at first-level USG institutions.

CSpinks
CSpinks

@Lee_CPA2 In answer to the question you posed in the penultimate sentence in your comment above: Not me, either. Debt of that size scares me.

CSpinks
CSpinks

@Lee_CPA2 A "needs-based" student in the Augusta area faces about $4500 in annual costs to attend the local USG community college, East Georgia State College.


During my first year('63-'64) at Augusta College, the predecessor of the current Augusta University, the total annual cost for a full-time student was $165.


What's happened in the interval between '63 and '16? I can tell you what hasn't happened, though. Betcha neither the USG nor any of its member institutions has undergone a comprehensive financial audit conducted by an experienced, out-of-state accounting firm.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

Wonder how much money could be captured for financial aid at UGA instead of spent on buildings and admin. jobs?

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

There was a time when MANY schools were need-blind. That has changed over the last couple of decades, since we moved to the economic theory that "all kids deserve a chance, as long as they have plenty of money."  Or the Me and Mine First theory.


Some schools will let you in, no matter how poor,but they cannot or won't supply you with aid, including work-study, to fill the whole gap.  I call that needs-blind admission, but not needs-filled financial aid. And Starik is right; some schools can provide full aid only for the most stellar students.

hamgrad
hamgrad

@Wascatlady No schools, including Hamilton, are actually needs filled because the "need" is calculated by the FAFSA which is grossly underestimating.  Only 50% of Hamilton students receive aid, which means the other 50% are quite wealthy.

Starik
Starik

For schools with large endowments this is a good idea. Didn't Emory adopt this policy some time ago? Some schools can't afford it - and many of these have tuition low enough to be covered by a Pell Grant and a part-time job, and applying for other scholarships outside the institution.

Travelfish
Travelfish

Does even its author believe this kumbaya malarkey?

CSpinks
CSpinks

@Travelfish The more unattributed comments I read, the more I understand why their authors decline to put their names on them.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Travelfish


Just Google kumbaya and you will see that they are an agent of the NEA spending their money on educrats. Malarkey probably does that too.

Starik
Starik

@CSpinks @Travelfish I wouldn't mind a requirement for real names - I'm retired, so all I'd have to worry about would be arson and drive-by shootings.  The blog would probably collapse, though.

Hillary's Emails
Hillary's Emails

Alas, malarkey dressed up in "caring" language is what modern liberalism is all about. So is promoting the myth that those who succeed only do so because of unfair advantages. At least if they're white.

Non-liberals, on the other hand, can't help but to notice that working hard and being responsible greatly influence outcomes.

Hillary's Emails
Hillary's Emails

On the other hand, one can google "NEA" and "contributions" to see where the GAE/NEA money goes.

Kumbaya isn't the half of it.