College Admission Season: Will Money Talk?

Last Updated Oct 27, 2009 1:36 PM EDT

Are rich teenagers going to catch a break in this year's college admission season?
It's a question that admission directors are skittish about discussing. No college wants to admit that it will reject more needy students so they can embrace the affluent applicants.

It was definitely a topic of conversation at a recent educational conference in Baltimore that attracted 5,300 counselors and higher-ed insiders. At one session packed with college admission officers, Christopher Lucier, the vice president for enrollment management at the University of Vermont, asked his colleagues this touchy question: "Will schools have to move from need-based aid to merit aid?"

For those who aren't conversant with the lingo, what Lucier was asking his peers was whether colleges and universities were planning to give fewer dollars to less fortunate teens so they'd have more cash to attract rich applicants, who can help keep the lights on. Hundreds of college admission people were in the room, but with one exception nobody said boo.

Last year, schools dug deeper and gave more money to middle- and low-income students. Members of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities hiked their aid by an average of 9%. But clearly private schools can't sustain that pace forever, observed Robert Mirabile, vice president for research at Maguire Associates, a higher-ed consulting firm in Concord, MA.

The subject popped up at another session in Baltimore when the focus turned to Reed College, which had given unusual access to a New York Times reporter when the school was making its admission decisions. Many readers were no doubt startled when they read that Reed dropped more than 100 otherwise qualified students off its list of accepted students because they required financial aid. That caused an uproar, but what parents and teenagers clearly don't understand is that private colleges and universities undergo this process every year and there is nothing unusual about it.

As an exasperated Reed admission officer told me, the school aims to have half the incoming students receiving need-based financial aid and the other half (the affluent kids) paying full price. That means that in hard times, kids who need financial assistance are going to be competing with more applicants for the same number of spaces. Frankly, schools only have so much money to give before swollen financial aid budgets begin endangering their educational missions. Most colleges, however, don't display their dirty laundry publicly.

So in a year of tremendous unemployment and economic suffering, are rich kids ironically going to get more of a break?

At the convention, I essentially posed this question to Paul J. Thiboutot, the dean at Carleton College, which is one of the nation's most prestigious liberal arts schools. Emphasizing that he was only "prognasticating," he replied, "I'm sure if you read the tea leaves they probably will."

Reed College image by philosophy geek. CC 2.0.

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