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The Credit Crunch and Financial Aid: What Will It Mean for College Admissions?


The press is full of startling articles about the impact of the economic downturn on financial aid.  For example, George Washington University is likely to transfer a portion of its financial aid budget for next year to students currently enrolled.  The private university fears that a significant portion of its student may have to leave before finishing their degrees because families’ savings have been decimated by the market plunge.

This fear is justifiable.  During a recent visit to the University of San Diego, I noticed that the front page of the student newspaper, The Vista, included a lengthy feature about USD students who were worried they might have to withdraw because their parents could no longer afford to pay their tuition bills.

Other examples abound.  According to an article on the KOMU website (a Missouri television station affiliated with the University of Missouri), more students are choosing to live at home to economize.  Even with the high cost of gas, students can save money by commuting, rather than living in the dormitories.  At Mizzou, for example, room and board can cost $7500, which is about the cost of an entire year’s tuition.

The Miami Herald also ran a recent story about a student who dreamed of attending Bennington College in Vermont (with a tuition sticker price of a whopping $49,000 per year), but who will likely end up attending a state institution in Florida.

The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities (NAICU) conducted a survey of member institutions in September 2008, and reported the following findings.

While there was no widespread student loan crisis through September, there were multiple instances of students taking time off of school, switching to part-time status, and turning to alternative forms of financial support than reported in NAICU’s March survey.  There was a considerable amount of behind-the-scenes scrambling by private colleges to keep loan capital flowing to their students.

But what these financial difficulties mean for admissions offices?  Clearly financial aid budgets will be constrained, especially if other colleges like George Washington University move funds to support students already enrolled.  Fewer financial aid dollars will remain to support incoming freshmen.

So what does all this mean for students and parents who are in the midst of the admissions cycle? While it’s impossible to make too many assumptions at this point, here are a few possible effects.

1. Fewer colleges will be able to make a legitimate promise not to consider financial need in the admission process. Many colleges and universities claim that their admissions processes are “need blind” (though very few really are:  financial need always enters the admissions process in one way or another).  This year, admissions offices will be more aware of financial need than in the recent past.

2. Students whose families can pay the full cost of tuition will likely have an advantage in the admissions process, while students who must depend on merit aid and other grants to attend will find their aid packages insufficient to allow them to attend.

3. Full-pay students whose academic profile (high school grades and test scores) place them below the historical institutional averages may find that they have a better chance of admission this year than last.

4. As a result, colleges may see an erosion of their admissions statistics.  For example, at George Washington University, the average SAT has been 640, and the average ACT has been about 28.  This year, in order to make its budget and attract enough paying students, GWU may have to lower its standards a bit to ensure a full incoming freshman class.  One could foresee, for example, GWU’s average GPA falling by one or two tenths, and its average SAT declining by 50 to 70 points, and its average ACT falling by a point or two.

5. State institutions may actually become more competitive, as the number of applications to in-state public universities soars.  Fearing that more students than usual will accept offers of admission—which could result in overcrowding—admissions offices at public universities may accept a smaller percentage of applicants at first, and then use their waiting lists just in case they miscalculate their yield rates.

6. Waiting lists may be longer at private universities.  Admissions and financial aid officers will watch their yield rate carefully from April to May.  If more accepted students decline offers of admission than in the past, we can expect colleges turn to their waiting lists in order to fill their class and make their budget.  And financial aid packages are always much less for students pulled from the waiting list.

7. With fewer grant dollars (or “discounts”) available, more students may find that their financial aid package includes more loans than they might have received in the past.  This is somewhat paradoxical, given that fewer student loans may be available from private institutions (federal loans are still available, but the amounts are capped).

8. Financial aid offices are unlikely to be able to meet as much demonstrated need as in the past.  (Recall that a family’s “demonstrated need” is the difference between the cost of attendance and the “expected family contribution,” or EFC, as calculated by the Federal government on the FAFSA).  For example, GWU has met about 90% of demonstrated need in the recent past.  In the coming year, GWU may meet only 70-80% of need—or less—depending on how much financial aid money it has to move to subsidize students currently enrolled.

Of course, it’s difficult to prognosticate.  But given the buzz in the higher education press and my understanding of the university budgeting and admissions processes, we can certainly deduce that this year will be a wild one for high school seniors and their families.  And it will also be a wild one for admissions and financial aid offices around the country as we all adjust to a new economic landscape.

Mark Montgomery

College Counselor in Colorado

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