College Roulette: Ask for Financial Aid, or Not?

College Roulette: Ask for Financial Aid, or Not?

“At some schools, there are development cases,” he said, using the industry term for likely donor. “But they compete against their own subcategory of students the way athletes compete against athletes.”

That is not to say the ability to pay does not work to students’ advantage. Mr. Tarrant said many colleges were trying to attract international students for budgetary reasons. “They get both international diversity and full pay,” he said.

Out-of-state students applying to state universities are in a similar situation because their tuition will be much higher than that of residents, Ms. Stern said. And the universities may use merit aid to attract them, knowing that even if these students get aid of $ 5,000 or more, they will still be paying more than their in-state counterparts.

Where the advantage of wealth may seem unfair is for students who are marginal for a particular college and need a lot of financial aid. They might not be admitted over a similarly marginal student whose parents can pay.

This feeds into why some parents who could qualify for some aid think they will give their children a leg up by not ticking the box that says they want to be considered for it. One counselor who asked not to be named said she sometimes asked parents if they could afford to pay for the first year and apply for aid after that.

But this kind of strategy ultimately creates an untenable situation. What if they don’t get aid the next year? Do they take on huge amounts of debt? Does the student transfer?

“You have to think long and hard about how long you can pay full freight,” said Susan Beacham, chief executive of Money Savvy Generation, a consultant, who lives in Illinois.

Ms. Beacham said she and her husband told their two daughters that they would not pay more than $ 40,000 a year for college for them. One is at Miami University of Ohio, which costs just under $ 40,000 for out-of-state students. The other had wanted to go to New York University — at nearly $ 60,000 — but went to the University of South Carolina instead, where the price tag is also about $ 40,000. Next year, she is transferring to the University of Illinois, where she will get in-state tuition.

“It is such an emotional issue,” Ms. Beacham said. “It’s your child’s happiness. But your child’s happiness cannot be bought.”

But many parents still want to be able to send their children to the best college they get into. The financial reality, made starker by the 2008 financial crisis that reduced savings and cost many people their jobs, makes this harder.

Joan Rynearson, an educational consultant on Bainbridge Island, Wash., said there were plenty of affluent parents receiving financial aid. Pitzer College in California said the families of 14 of its 198 students receiving financial aid last year had incomes above $ 200,000, and at least one student received slightly more than the $ 56,988 the college costs per year.

Ms. Rynearson is working now with a doctor who has one daughter in college and twins who are juniors in high school. “He will get financial aid even though he’s a well-paid doctor,” she said. “There is an advantage to having twins because your expected family contribution remains the same.”

She is more concerned with what she calls the “disadvantaged middle class”: families that make too much to qualify for financial aid but not enough to pay full tuition.

One of the things colleges do to this group is what consultants call “gapping.” The college may determine that a family needs $ 20,000 a year in aid but will offer only $ 10,000 and leave it up to the family to pay more — or go somewhere else. Or the college seems to meet the need but does so with a large portion of loans and campus jobs.

The main advice for parents caught in this trap is to aim their sights lower. Many second- and third-tier colleges will offer merit scholarships to attract smart students whose grades and test scores will increase their academic profile — and whose parents can pay some of the tuition.

“It’s a tough conversation to have with the students and their parents,” Ms. Stern said. “It’s still status to have your kid go to the big-name school.”

The other advice is to think now about your career ambitions and whether you can afford to pay off the loans later. Social workers, for example, may do a lot of good in the world but they do not earn enough money to pay off large loans.

“It’s almost a luxury of the past to be able to go off and enjoy this rich liberal arts experience with no regard to what it costs and what you’ll be doing,” Ms. Rynearson said. “My practice has changed in that I feel more responsibility as a consultant to assess student interest and attitudes toward a career.”

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