I received an email yesterday from a disillusioned mom, who wanted to share what she has learned after receiving her oldest daughter’s financial aid packages. I can totally sympathize with this mother and I want to pass on Lisa’s observations before I comment on them.
After receiving Lisa’s email, I sent her a message asking what kind of merit aid her child received. Her daughter got the following:
Butler University: $0.
Southern Methodist University: $7,000 a year.
Baylor University: She only said that the award was somewhat better than SMU.
The daughter got into University of Texas, Austin, which is affordable for the family, and she is still waiting from Rice. Washington University in St. Louis waitlisted her.
Where’s the Merit Money?
Here is what Lisa wrote:
1. If you are in the upper middle class economically be prepared to pay almost full price tuition at all schools applied. It does not matter if your daughter takes 5 AP classes, have straight A’s for four years at a competitive HS, 32 on your ACT, on a swim team, plays in the top school concert band, and is involved in the token clubs.
2. The middle class is stuck with a few options: state schools, junior colleges, and lots of debt.
3. Your child IS penalized if his/her parents make a decent salary AND save like they were supposed to for 18 years for college.
4. Your college investments DO NOT keep up with the rising cost of college.
5. Heaven help anyone who has two kids in college at the same time who makes a decent salary because aide will NOT come your way, regardless how smart your child is.
6. Don’t read all those college books telling you have a shot at merit aid. It’s too low or does not exist.
7. Have your child become a super star athlete. That is your only chance!
I do feel for this mom. Her daughter is bright and it’s understandable that the family would assume she would earn a fistful of merit scholarships. That’s what I would have assumed!
I am floored that Butler didn’t award this smart child a merit scholarship. When I looked at the university’s stats, the vast majority of freshman receive some kind of award. My only thought is that Butler thought that this Texan wasn’t serious about attending because she was applying to schools that have a far higher academic standing – Wash U in St. Louis, UT in Austin and Rice. Schools do look at where an applicant is also applying.
I am also surprised that SMU didn’t give the girl more money. When I looked at the school’s most recent Common Data Set, it clearly showed that many affluent students, who wouldn’t qualify for financial aid, got merit awards, which the Common Data set refers to as non-need-based aid. The average award was a healthy one – $17,268. I’m sharing the relevant box from the school’s Common Data Set:
Lisa’s daughter might have been penalized because she is from Texas, as is SMU. I don’t know if this is the case, but some schools really crave geographic diversity and are willing to offer greater rewards to students from distant states. (Of course, that didn’t work with Butler!)
College Admission Realities
I wrote the rest of this post before I learned where Lisa’s daughter was attending. Only some of it will be relevant to the Texas family.
1. Nearly all schools in this country do give merit awards to affluent teenager, who are as gifted as Lisa’s daughter. There was a time when that wasn’t true — only low and middle-income students received help from colleges. The college rankings, however, changed all that. To understand why affluent students routinely get money, I’d urge you to read a post that I wrote in February (this is one of my favorite posts):
I need to add a caveat. Plenty of super desirable, rich students tend to apply to the very schools that will not give them any merit scholarships. Those institutions include the Ivy League members, as well as other highly elite schools. Look at the top schools in US News & World Report’s college rankings in the national university and liberal arts colleges to see what some of those schools are. These institutions don’t have to give awards to rich students because they flock to their campuses without any carrots.
3. You are more likely to be penalized for your salary rather than your savings. Your income plays a huge part in whether a family receives need-based financial aid. On the other hand, less than 4% of families have stockpiled enough money in their college and taxable accounts to have ANY impact on their Expected Family Contribution. Here is a post that I wrote on this topic:
4. I agree with Lisa that the return on college investments has not been keeping up with the cost of college. Parents have also sabotaged their returns (as well as their retirement account performance) by jumping out of the market when it’s already plummeted and then returning when the market has already clocked great gains. That’s how most people market time.
5. I have to disgree with this observation. For financial aid purposes, it’s better to have two children in college at the same time. Heck, triplets is even better. Why? The FAFSA formula cuts your Expected Family Contribution in about half when you have two in college. So if your EFC is $25,000 for one child and the next year a second child heads to college, the EFC for each would drop to $12,500.
The PROFILE gives you credit for the number of children who are still dependents. You won’t get penalized if you space your kids farther apart, but you also don’t get as big a drop on your EFC per child.
I wish I had known this when my husband and I were deciding when to have children — I would have tried to have my kids born two years apart instead of three. My kids were in college together for one year and it saved me about $7,500.
6. Most schools give out merit scholarships. In fact, at private colleges and universities, about 88% of students receive a merit award. Clearly, schools are not reserving this money just for the “A” students.
Public universities have also gotten into the act. According to a study by The Education Trust, state institutions award at least half of merit awards to affluent student. This is, by the way, a controversial practice, especially when you consider
7. Just about the worst thing you can do is assume that a gifted athlete is going to earn an athletic scholarship. About 2% of high school seniors win sports scholarships at NCAA schools. The average scholarship, by the way, is less than $11,000. (I added a chapter in the my upcoming second edition of The College Solution on athletic scholarships.)
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of the second edition of The College Solution, which is now available for preorders.