What Should College Admission Officers Know?

I attended a mini college conference yesterday in San Diego that was sponsored by the Western Association for College Admission Counseling (WACAC).

A couple of enthusiastic young admission reps from a pair of Catholic universities back East were the presenters at one of the sessions.  I wanted to share one of the questions that the reps fielded.

An audience member asked the reps whether their schools might reject some applicants if they required a lot of financial assistance. Both young women vigorously assured the audience that their institutions would never do such a thing. Both of them bragged that their universities were “need blind” for admission decisions. In other words, they never, ever took financial need into consideration during the admission selection process.

When Colleges Gapped

Of course that sounds good, but what is far more relevant is what these — or any other schools — do when accepted students need financial aid. At most institutions, many students who require aid experience a higher-ed phenomenon called “gapping.” That’s when the university produces a financial aid package that doesn’t include enough money to cover the student’s demonstrated need.

Sometimes the financial aid gap can be quite large. A $40,000 school, for example, might give a student a financial aid package that includes a $10,000 grant with the rest in loans. In a case like this, the gap is so large it’s scary.

When asked about gapping at their universities, the reps were vague. They didn’t seem familiar with their institutions’ financial aid practices. They did mention that they could be advocates for students who really wanted to attend, but needed more money.

Young College Admission Officers

I think this Q&A exchange illustrates what I consider to be a troubling problem. A lot of admission reps, particularly the young staffers of which there are many in this field, have little to no knowledge of the tough decisions that are being made back at their mother ships by the head honchos in the admission and financial aid offices, who must make tough decisions with finite resources and competing institutional goals.

What Do Admission Officers Know?

Out in the field these young staffers encourage teenagers by handing out shiny marketing material and telling these kids that the schools gives out lots of money. But try having a candid conversation with one of them about a specific child’s chances for meaningful financial aid. Often they will suggest not worrying about the money at this point in the process.

Earlier in the day, I had asked one of the admission rep presenters what percentage of financial aid need that her university typically met. It’s easy enough to find out on the College Board or the school’s Common Data Set. I asked it simply to find out if she knew. And she didn’t. What she did tell me was the range of merit scholarships the school awards. But that isn’t what I asked and that isn’t particularly helpful when you are a 18-year-old kid or a parent and wondering how much college will cost.

I think schools should bring young admission officers into the loop so they can be more realistic with potential students and their parents.

What do you think?

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of a new eBook, Shrinking the Cost of College: 152 Ways to Cut the Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree. She also blogs about college for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

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