How To Get More Merit Aid?

July 21, 2011

About a week ago, the Washington Post’s Dan DeVise called attention to a blog post from Jonathan Burdick, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at the University of Rochester, entitled “what kind of scholarship can I get?”  DeVise called his piece “Admission dean pulls back curtain on merit aid.”

Burdick’s blog post outlined “12 steps that mattered for earning merit scholarships in the UR Class of 2015.”  In it, he stresses that better grades, more demanding courses, and better SAT or ACT scores” improved applicants’ chances of garnering a better merit aid offer.  He also notes that more engagement with UR’s admissions staff also tended to improve merit aid offers.

DeVise, in introducing Burdick’s post, provides the following overview:  ” ‘Need-based’ aid is fairly easy to predict; many colleges spell out their formulas so plainly that a student can calculate a likely aid award based on her or his household income. “Merit” aid is comparatively opaque, meted out in rough proportion to the applicant’s academic credentials.”  So DeVise expressed his surprise at Burdick’s transparent presentation of what leads to merit aid offers.

I’m surprised, too.  Why did Burdick offer this decoding?  Does he think greater transparency will yield even more applications from talented aspirants?  Perhaps. I wonder whether Burdick can communicate what he does because he knows that most other colleges and universities could not make such a straightforward presentation of their merit aid strategies.

That is, I wonder whether Burdick’s account of the UR strategy (I’ll take that to be an honest presentation) squares with most other colleges’ merit aid strategies.

Merit aid is often presented as a way to reward “good students” for their accomplishments and hard work in college.  But most colleges and universities that award merit aid do so in order to increase net tuition revenue.  That is, they believe that offering a some merit aid will allow them to receive more tuition income from parents that do have the ability to pay.  On this understanding, a key consideration is to offer merit aid to students from higher income families: better to offer $15,000 in merit aid to a student whose parents have high incomes than to offer $20,000 in need-based aid to students with low or moderate incomes.

And there are plenty of consulting firms willing to teach “leveraging” strategies to colleges and universities.  “Leveraging” in this context means deploying aid strategically to increase net tuition revenue per student.  Thus, a leveraging technique would have a college offer a larger merit aid package to a student who had shown only minimal interest in a college than to a student who had shown very high interest in attending.  Why?  Because the high interest student can be expected to be more likely to enroll with a smaller merit offer; the higher merit offer will be needed to land the student with less of an emotional attachment already formed to the college.

Merit aid offers may also be awarded with an eye to the applicant’s zip code:  higher merit aid offers being made to students from higher income zip codes.  Even if a student’s tuition revenue net of merit aid is no higher than a poorer student’s net tuition revenue net of need-based aid, the college stands a far better chance of a grateful parent contribution to the annual fund from the student from the more affluent zip code.

Such leveraging considerations don’t show up in Burdick’s account, and perhaps they play no role at UR.  Perhaps UR already has a large enough applicant pool that it wants to use merit aid only to improve the profile (SAT scores, high school grades and ranks) of its entering class.  But if so, Burdick’s piece is unlikely to provide a representative understanding of what leads to merit aid offers.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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