Financial Aid Bait and Switch?

Last Updated Sep 27, 2011 1:50 PM EDT

How good are the financial aid packages that my teenager has received from colleges?
That's the question that parents of high school seniors rightly ask when they're comparing financial aid offers. What they rarely ask, however, is a variation of this question:

If my financial situation stays the same, will I be able to count on the same level of support from a school?
What you don't want to get trapped by is a bait-and-switch arrangement where your child's freshman aid package looks much better than the annual award for the rest of his or her college years.

Why College Favor Freshmen

It's hard to imagine that schools are intentionally trying to rip off students after their freshmen year, but they all are driven by their own institutional priorities. Getting freshmen in the door can be a much higher priority, which means more financial aid is going to be devoted to those students.

How can you tell if the aid package will change as your child gets older? A great resource is COLLEGEdata, which offers a variety of online tools for research. I am using the site's data for two schools - Northeastern University and Vanderbilt University - to illustrates how institutions can treat upperclassmen much differently.

Northeastern University

There are lots of numbers on Northeastern's chart, but what I want you to pay attention to is the percentage of financial need that the school meets for the typical freshman. That number is 69%, which is low to begin with. Northeastern University's percentage of financial need met drops to 59% for all undergrads. That's significant.

The average gift award (free money) that an upperclassman at Northeastern receives is $15,619, which is substantially lower than the average freshman award of $22,783.


Vanderbilt University

Let's contrast Northeastern's financial aid practice with Vanderbilt University's financial aid policy. Vanderbilt is far more generous. The university meets 100% of the financial aid need of its freshmen and its older students. The average aid award for freshmen is $42,397 versus $41,835 for all undergrads.


Bottom Line:

When evaluating schools, pay attention to how schools treat all their students, not just the freshmen. Being vigilant could save you thousands of dollars.


More on The College Solution:

The Secret College Advantage: Money Talks

Will Saving for College Hurt Financial Aid Chances?

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and Shrinking the Cost of College workbook. She also writes her own college blog at The College Solution.

Northeastern University image by Kaplan International Colleges. CC 2.0.

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