I got an email the other day from a mom, whose son is brilliant.
I assume he’s brilliant because he will be attending the California Institute of Technology in the fall as a freshman. The acceptance rate at Cal Tech is 13% and many of its student get near perfect SAT scores.
This teenage boy applied to 21 schools (way overboard folks, no one should apply to that many) and he got into 15 highly selective schools. It was no surprise to me that the student received a great financial aid package. His mom, raising two sons on her own, earns a low income and needs a lot of help. Lucky for her, the son’s college costs will be minimal even though this school costs more than $49,000 a year.
The mom is obviously thrilled with the Cal Tech financial aid package, but she’s worried about her next child. Her other son has a 2.9 or 3.0 GPA. She wonders what kind of financial aid he might get when he graduates from high school.
Financial Aid Realities
Her concern serves to illustrates one of the realities of financial aid awards. Even though her youngest son will be just as financially needy when he applies to colleges, it’s highly unlikely that schools will provide him with a great financial package. He may receive some need-based grants (money you don’t have to repay) from the schools he applies to, but his financial aid packages will also include loans.
So why would son No. 2 receive worse financial aid packages? Here are two reasons why:
Reason No. 1:
Many schools in this country practice what’s called preferential financial aid packaging. With this common practice, colleges reserve their best aid offers to the students they are excited about. These are typically the students with high GPA and test scores. Under this system, the kids with the lower academic profiles get the crumbs. So a student with a 2.9 or 3.0 GPA typically isn’t going to receive a large package.
I should add, however, that students with these lower grade point averages can certainly earn merit awards from lots of colleges. For instance, more than 80% of students attending private colleges enjoy some type of price break. Here’s an example:
This spring the daughter of a friend of mine, who had a 2.9 or 3.0 GPA, received $13,000 ($52,000 total) from California Lutheran University. She had originally gotten a $10,000 annual merit award from the school, but the family was able to raise the amount by showing Cal Lutheran a better award from another college. I’ve heard from plenty of people who have done something similar.
Reason No. 2:
There are colleges in this country that meet 100% of the demonstrated need of each of their students. At these schools it doesn’t matter if you are the last kid accepted in the freshman class or the first. Everybody gets the same deal. So if the last teen accepted requires $40,000 in grants, for instance, that’s what he or she gets. About five dozen school in the country, including Cal Tech, fit into this category. The younger brother and most other teenagers, however, would have no chance at getting into these elite schools.
If you’re interested in what schools provide these platinum-plated financial aid packages, here is the list from a post over at my college blog at CBS MoneyWatch:
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller and a workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College: 152 Ways to Cut the Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree. Follow her on Twitter.