With sticker prices of $100,000 for a degree at a public university and as much as $200,000 at the toniest private schools, it may seem that college's financial burden is simply too heavy.
But a growing number of students are applying a basic principle of Physics 101—Archimedes's power of leverage—to raise college cash.
The lever: colleges' competition for good students. "It's not a secret to anybody that universities compete fiercely over admitted students. It makes sense for students to use that leverage," says Phoebe Rounds, who set off enough competition over herself to win a generous scholarship to Yale. Rounds went on to help form a student group that is training high schoolers to put themselves up on the financial aid equivalent of eBay. They try to apply to enough competing, generous colleges to get at least one school to bid up their scholarships.
Applying leverage isn't easy. It takes early planning, hard work, skillful negotiating, and, sometimes, tough decisions. It also takes a willingness to fail and the courage to stand up to aid officers. Leveragers don't always win. Fully half of all college students don't get any kind of free money for college. And some end up angering financial aid officers, many of whom say they don't want to encourage a strategy that ends up rewarding wealthier families better at working the system.
But those students who don't take advantage of colleges' competition over applicants say they've learned the hard way that simply trusting that the needed aid will magically arrive is likely to end in disappointment. So here's how to leverage your way to big financial aid packages:
Study, lead, and excel. Successful leveragers say they started out by following the same eat-your-spinach advice that all students should be following anyway. Study hard. Get good grades. Try your best on tests. Develop a special talent or skill you're passionate about—playing the harmonica, throwing the javelin, tutoring kindergartners—that will set you apart from the crowd.
What's new is that students who've rolled their eyes at such nagging in the past may finally pay attention now that big dollar signs are attached. The federal government's Academic Competitiveness and smart grants, for example, give up to $4,000 a year to needy students who maintain a 3.0 grade-point average and study certain sciences or foreign languages. States such as Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee give big scholarships to any local high schoolers with 3.0s in their core classes.
And a growing number of colleges are now saying publicly what has long been one of the worst-kept secrets of financial aid: The better the student, the bigger the school scholarship, no matter what the financial need. Howard University's website, for example, announces that the Washington, D.C., college hands hundreds of first-come-first-served full-tuition scholarships (worth $14,000 a year) to students with GPAs of 3.0 and SATs of at least 1170. Slightly better grades and scores win at least $3,500 more. At the top, students with 3.75 GPAs and 1500 SATs can get all their costs covered, plus free laptops and $950 for books.
Brian Meegan, a college counselor at Summit Country Day School in Cincinnati, says inducements like those can persuade teens to buckle down, study, and retake college tests. "I ask them: 'How much do you make an hour: $5? $10? Take this test again, and you might earn $5,000. Is that worth your time?'"
Apply often but not too early. Meegan and other counselors warn that students who want to maximize their aid shouldn't succumb to the temptation of applying early or to just one college. Research shows that students who apply to several colleges get significantly more aid than similarly qualified students who apply to only one. And to leverage effectively, it pays to have several offers to compare in the spring.
To increase their leverage, students should spend the fall of their senior year researching two or more dream schools. They should also try to find at least three schools they like, where they're likely to get in, and that have low costs or generous aid. Counselors generally recommend that students make sure to apply to at least one in-state public university to provide a low-cost option. But students shouldn't bother with any potential financial safety school—no matter how cheap—where they doubt they'll fit in, for either academic or social reasons. Since college dropouts earn about 45 percent less than college graduates, it is worth a few thousand dollars extra to make sure the student graduates.
The goal: to get just the right mix of colleges so that aid officers, who can check a student's aid application to see what other colleges are in the race, will try to lure the student away with lots of grants. Any low-income or middle-class student with a shot at the elite should apply to the schools that offer the most need-based aid, says Rounds. Princeton tops the list, but others with lots of endowment to hand out include the University of Virginia, Rice, Emory, and Pomona.
Call or visit in the fall to get your real price. Because about three fourths of students at pricey private schools receive grants, students and parents should, basically, ignore the prices in college catalogs. Instead, financial aid officers encourage families to contact them in the fall, when their offices are less busy, and ask for aid estimates tailored to their finances and student. And parents should feel free to brag a bit when they visit or call, says Cecil Foster, a college consultant and former enrollment official at the University of South Dakota.
Then, when the aid estimate comes in, it's time to ask some tough questions. Many schools try to inflate their aid packages by including big, expensive loans. The best aid is in the form of grants or scholarships that don't have to be paid back. But even grants can have unexpected strings attached. "A lot of people will get you in the door" by offering big freshman-year scholarships, Foster explains. "You can ask, 'Can I count on this for four years? What GPA does it take to renew it?'"
Many grade-based scholarship programs are actually counting on a percentage of students to lose their scholarships because of poor grades. The original budgeters for Tennessee's hope scholarship, for example, allocated only enough money to cover the program's costs if 45 percent of freshman winners failed to make a 2.75 GPA and lost the scholarship within a year. The program remains within its budget because fully 50 percent of the freshman recipients haven't been making the grade.
Heat up the competition. Students worried that schools won't consider them needy, or whose grades are less than stellar, can aim for lower-tier schools that offer merit grants. One way to set the bait for scholarships is to apply to several schools that compete directly with one another. Pawel Kaczmarek applied to the four major midwestern universities with good business programs within a reasonable driving distance of his suburban Chicago home. He ended up choosing Indiana University, in part because it came up with a $6,000-a-year grant to make sure its out-of-state costs matched what he would have paid in state at the University of Illinois. One of his biggest regrets, the sophomore says now, is that he learned only after he got to school about other ways to lever more aid out of schools. "I wish I knew more about the options," he says.
One often overlooked option, counselors say, is for students to apply to a few colleges at which their grades and test scores put them in the top 25 percent of the student body. Many colleges attempt to raise their statistics—and rankings from U.S. News—by luring high-achieving students with cash. Students can see each school's admissions statistics free of charge at nces.ed.gov, or they can pay $14.95 for access to search tools at U.S. News's premium service.
Compare the offers. Then share. When the decisions arrive in the spring, it's time to start pressing on those levers. Ryan Caro, 18, of Chelsea, Mass., decided to try out the leverage strategy as a high school senior last fall and added a Princeton application to his workload. It paid off in March when Princeton offered him at least $4,000 more than Yale, his first choice. So, coached by the Yale students, he twice visited the financial aid office "and showed them the letters and asked, 'Why is there such a divergence?'" Yale replied with an offer that would cost Caro just $5 more than Princeton. "If you make sure the schools you apply to in the fall have good financial aid policies, you won't be surprised with sticker shock in the spring," he says now.
Caesar Storlazzi, Yale's director of student financial services, didn't address Caro's case, but he said Yale is sticking to its policy of providing only enough aid to meet each student's proven need. Yale "does not match awards from other schools," he says. However, he adds, "seeing the copy of an award from another school often enables us to review the Yale 'needs analysis' and ask additional questions of the family to help us in reviewing our calculation of the parents' contribution."
Play hardball if you have to. Other aid officers say that while many college officials have philosophical objections to the practice, and often insist publicly they don't respond to competitive pressure, most schools that have money to spend on scholarships do use at least some to lure the best students possible. "There are schools who don't acknowledge they do it—even claim they don't—but do" respond to competition, says David Sheridan, who has worked in the financial aid offices of Columbia University and Stevens Institute of Technology and currently heads enrollment services at a New Jersey community college.
Students who've successfully applied leverage say that even the most stubborn colleges often eventually respond. Rajiv Gokal of Valdosta, Ga., was "too lazy" as a high school senior to apply to the right schools to create some leverage. When he realized midway through his freshman year at New York University that he really couldn't afford to borrow $30,000 a year, his attempts to appeal for more grants were rebuffed. He realized the school didn't have to respond because he had no leverage.
So he filled out transfer applications for seven schools that competed with NYU. Writing new essays and arranging for recommendations ruined his spring break and hurt his grades. But it was worth it. The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, one of the nation's top business programs, offered him so much money that he won't have to borrow another penny. As he prepared to leave NYU, a dean offered to match Wharton's offer. But by then, it was too late. "It's pretty awesome that I could work the system really hard to get aid," Gokal says.
Awesome, or, as Archimedes might say, "Eureka!"