Is Applying for Financial Aid Dangerous?

Last Updated Aug 20, 2010 5:41 PM EDT

Does applying for financial aid kill a child's chances of getting into a college?Overhead photo of Pitzer College
A lot of families worry about this. What particularly freaks them out is the question found on college applications that asks whether a family will seek financial aid.

At very selective schools, the anxiety about whether to check that financial aid box is strong. But this week, Angel B. Perez, the director of admission at Pitzer College, Claremont, CA, tried to assuage that fear at a conference of college counselors.

Teenagers won't get penalized simply for applying for financial aid, Perez stated.

When students seek financial help and don't qualify, the applications get put in the same pile as all the students (presumably affluent) who never bothered to apply for financial aid.

"If you applied for aid and don't get it, you are the same as someone who never applied," Perez said.

I assume that the parents who are worrying about whether or not to apply for financial help aren't the ones who need tons of financial aid. It's the parents who enjoy higher salaries and greater financial resources, who wonder if it's too risky to check the financial aid box.

Deciding Who to Reject

The admission staff at Pitzer and other colleges ultimately must decide who will make the final cut when the school has exhausted its financial aid resources. That's when the finances of some needy applicants, but not all, will come into play. When deciding who is turned away, the admission staff doesn't simply reject all the kids who need the most help.

Rather, Perez says, the school won't touch the "rock star" applicants regardless of how much assistance they need. The staff also doesn't touch needier teens whom the staff has concluded will make a big difference on their campus. The school also keeps the applicants who can help meet the institution's mission.

So among those who need aid, who gets the axe first?

"When we need to start cutting," Perez says, "women from in-state are usually were we have too many people."

Ah, the gender curse. In a world where 57% of college students are female, accomplished young women can experience a tougher time getting into highly selective schools. But that is a subject for another day.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also write a college blog for TheCollegeSolutionBlog.

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