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September/October 2014 Ten Ways Colleges Work You Over

What they don't want you to know about admissions and financial aid.

By Stephen Burd and Rachel Fishman

#1 Just because a school encourages you to apply doesn’t mean they actually want you.

High school students who are inundated with personalized letters and emails (and even partially filled-out applications) from colleges urging them to apply may mistakenly think that the institutions contacting them are intending to admit them. In reality, schools often encourage students to apply so that they can reject them.

The aim of the game for colleges is to boost the number of students who apply and can be rejected. By doing this, the schools see their acceptance rates fall, making them appear to be more selective—which helps them rise up the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

Take Northeastern University in Boston. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the university sends nearly 200,000 personalized letters to high school students each year. The institution then follows up these letters with emails, making it seem that the school is wooing these individuals.

These tactics appear to be paying off. Nearly 50,000 students applied to Northeastern this year for 2,800 spots in the fall 2014 class—“more than in any previous year and a ratio of 18 applicants per seat,” the university boasted in a news release.

Lowering its acceptance rates is at least one factor in why Northeastern has catapulted up the U.S. News rankings, rising more than 100 spots since 2002.

#2 A college may not be as selective as it seems.

Another way that colleges attempt to appear more selective than they really are is through use of the Common Application, a standard form that students can use to easily apply to multiple colleges. Colleges have found that they can use the Common App to inflate their applications in order to lower their acceptance rate—one of the measures used to determine an institution’s ranking in U.S. News. As it turns out, the proliferation of the Common App has enabled students to easily apply to more than one school even if they are underqualified. Indeed, students are applying to more schools than ever before. In 2000, just a couple of years after the online Common App was introduced, only 12 percent of students applied to seven or more schools; in 2011, 29 percent did.

The University of Chicago provides an example of the factors behind this trend. For years, the university publicly rejected the use of the Common App. In fact, it marketed its own application as the “Uncommon Application.” But by 2007, Chicago officials caved to the demands of looking as competitive as the other schools using the Common App. As the vice president and dean of college enrollment told the Brown Daily at the time, “We took note of the fact that two of our major competitors, Northwestern and [the University of Pennsylvania], had decided to accept the Common Application.”

What was the result of the University of Chicago allowing the Common App? By 2013, the school increased the number of applications it received by more than 20,000 and reduced its acceptance rate by over 24 percentage points. This helped move Chicago from being ranked number nine nationally by U.S. News in 2007 to number five by 2014—ahead of its competitors Northwestern and the University of Pennsylvania.

#3 You may be rejected or wait-listed at a college simply because you are not wealthy.

Every year, a substantial number of private colleges reject or wait-list a certain proportion of applicants not because of grades or test scores or because they would not be a “good fit,” but, rather, simply because their families aren’t rich enough to pay full freight. These schools, in other words, are “need aware” when admitting a share of their students.

This may seem unjust. But colleges say they have no other choice because they have only a limited amount of money to spend on financial aid. “While financial aid is one of the top three expenditures at Oberlin, the amount of funds available is still finite, and we do have to take that into account in the admissions process,” says Elizabeth Houston, who works in the admissions office at Oberlin College.

“If, for instance, we admitted a class comprised entirely of students who could make no financial contribution to their education, we simply couldn’t afford it,” explains Houston in a blog post on the college’s website. “That’s an extreme case, but even taking into account the natural mix of income levels a college might see in their applicant pool, there are still very few institutions that are wealthy enough to afford to be completely need-blind and still meet 100 percent of demonstrated need.”

According to colleges, this typically doesn’t affect low-income students who are at the top of their class. Finances are only taken into account with more marginal students, they say.

Still, in a survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed in 2011, 19 percent of admissions directors at private liberal arts colleges reported that they admit full-pay students with lower grades and test scores than other applicants. These colleges are, in other words, providing affirmative action for the wealthy, despite all of the extraordinary advantages that these students have over their less-fortunate peers.

#4 Low-income students are not always better off at need-blind colleges.

It’s true that the most elite and wealthiest private colleges, like Harvard University and Amherst College, meet the full demonstrated financial need of their low- and moderate-income students. But many other colleges that boast about being need-blind don’t come close. Instead, they leave students with a hefty gap between what the government says they should be expected to pay and what they are being charged.

New York University, for example, admits students regardless of their financial need. However, NYU students from families making $30,000 or less face a daunting average net price—the amount students and their parents must pay after all grant aid has been exhausted—of $24,265 per year. (See “America’s Affordable Elite Colleges” page and our full rankings at washingtonmonthly.com, which calculate net price of attendance based on three-year averages.) That means that the lowest-income families are on the hook for an amount that is nearly equal to or even more than their yearly earnings.

Financially needy students who qualify for admission at NYU may actually be better off at “need-aware” schools that meet the full demonstrated need of the low-income students they do enroll.

#5 Need-blind schools are not really blind about their applicants’ need.

Administrators at purportedly need-blind colleges don’t necessarily need to know an applicant’s family income to know if he or she is poor, because they have plenty of other clues.

For example, admissions officers know where applicants live and what high school they attended, and whether or not they worked after school or participated in a plethora of extracurricular activities. Admissions staff members also know the occupations of the applicants’ parents and whether they attended college, and, more importantly, whether the student is a legacy. And these administrators can learn a lot about students’ backgrounds from their college application essays.

So if a need-blind school is looking to admit a much larger share of affluent students for budgetary reasons, it could easily do so without knowing exactly how much an applicant’s family earned last year.

Stephen Burd and Rachel Fishman teamed up on this article. Stephen Burd is a senior policy analyst with the New America Foundation's Education Policy Program. Rachel Fishman is a policy analyst for the program.

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