College Aid for the Affluent

Last Updated Apr 24, 2009 11:59 AM EDT

If your family pulls in more than about $150,000 annually and
the crash has left you with a few dollars saved, you probably assume that
colleges will stiff your teenager when they hand out financial aid.
It's a common assumption, but it's wrong. A surprising
number of colleges — public and private — have absolutely
no problem throwing money at students who, at least on paper, can afford to
underwrite the cost of a bachelor's degree. In fact, schools have
been devoting a growing mountain of financial aid dollars to families like
yours. You'll increase your chances of cutting the price of college
if you understand why schools are luring affluent students with price breaks.
Equally important, you'll want to know which institutions have balked
at this largesse and are making the kids pay full freight.

How the Aid Game Changed


In the old days, most colleges limited their
financial aid to truly needy students. The exceptions to the rule: brainiacs
aiming for National Merit honors and jocks competing for athletic scholarships.
But in the early 1990s, this tradition began unraveling when the higher-ed
world experienced a temporary slump in college-age students. Many schools began
luring students from higher-income families by offering them merit awards or
tuition discounts.


Even when the adolescent drought ended,
however, schools showed no appetite for ditching awards earmarked for smart,
affluent students with impressive credentials. What was largely a
private-college effort has spread to flagship and regional state universities.
The tuition discounts are often sizable. The average price break at private
schools today, according to the College Board, is 33.5 percent. The typical
discount at public schools is nearly 15 percent.


Fear is a prime motivator for these merit
carrots. Many schools are terrified of the annual U.S. News & World
Report
college rankings
. Schools that enjoy top rankings often worry about
slipping, while those with mediocre numbers are frequently fixated on moving
up. The scores matter because many families, particularly those interested in
highly selective schools, regard these rankings as the college bible. One way
schools can capture higher rankings is to lure the most desirable kids
— those with impressive GPAs and SAT scores. Often, these desirable
kids come from wealthier families, and they can attract those kids by offering
discounts.




Getting Aid from Public Colleges


Cash-strapped state schools hope price breaks
will lure smart out-of-state students who will pay higher tuition —
even with a discount — than residents must pay. Cross-border poaching
has broken out as state schools scramble to fill slots. The University of
Toledo in Ohio, for instance, is aggressively reaching out to students from
nearby Michigan by offering discounts of $9,000 to $12,000 to applicants with
GPAs as low as 3.0. In two years, the number of out-of-state students attending
the Ohio school jumped from 100 to 300.


Not all public schools are as up-front as the
University of Toledo, but the handouts are happening. The head of the nonprofit
Education Trust recently told me that the child of one of her staff members,
who lives in Maryland, got a great offer from the University of Texas. Another
family, in Cambridge, Mass., said their daughter also received a wonderful
package from the University of Texas.


So if you’re the parent of a strong
candidate who would like to attend a flagship or other public college outside
your state, contact the school’s financial aid office and ask about
its merit-aid policies. You may be in for a pleasant surprise.




Which Private Colleges May Help You


Many private colleges — though not
Ivy League schools — are eager to give merit awards to kids like
yours. Schools offer these discounts to compete against the most elite schools.
Be sure to scrutinize the financial aid section of these colleges’
Web sites to learn their merit-aid policies. And don’t be shy about
calling their aid offices to see what type of aid your child might get.


The Ivies and a couple of dozen other elite
schools don’t play this game. They pride themselves on being
need-blind (they accept students without regard to family income). Wealthy
families pay the full tab at a school like Princeton University and the lack of
discounts hasn’t reduced their interest, since the Ivies continue to
serve primarily as watering holes for affluent students. Only 8 percent or
so of students at Harvard and Princeton, for example, qualify for Pell grants,
which are reserved for needy families. In
contrast, 38 percent of students at the University of California at Los
Angeles, a state school, get Pell grants.


Because there’s nothing you can do to
extract merit aid from Ivy League colleges, your best bet is to have your child
apply for merit scholarships outside the institution. The Web site Fastweb.com is a good place
to start the hunt.




The Bottom Line


If your child has the sort of grades, test
scores, and other virtues that raise the tone of an incoming freshman class,
all but the most elite schools are going to love talking to him or her. Yes,
the Ivies can get all the 4.0 and top 10 percent students they want without
offering discounts to anyone who doesn’t need the money. But as long
as your sights aren’t aimed strictly at the top tier,
you’ll likely find that your child’s eligibility for
financial aid is less about your financial need and more about the
institution’s desire for reputation. Hey, colleges have needs, too.



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