Do Colleges Prefer Rich Applicants?

46 generous colleges say they don’t hold need for financial aid against applicants.

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In comparison, more than one quarter of the students at "need-aware" Smith College, a women's college in Northhampton, Mass., receive Pell grants—a higher percentage than at "need-blind" Columbia or Amherst, both of which have larger endowments. Although Smith makes no bones about its practice of sometimes giving an admissions edge to students who can afford the schools' $50,000-plus sticker price, about 60 percent of its students receive financial aid. "Need-awareness" allows admissions officers to sometimes "put a thumb on the scale for disadvantaged students," says Smith's dean of enrollment, Audrey Smith.

In fact, colleges' announced policies about whether they discriminate against financial aid applicants appear to make very little difference in their enrollment of low-income students. On average, Pell recipients made up 14 percent of students at colleges that meet the full need of aid applicants and are "need-blind" in admissions. That's only slightly above the 12.6 percent rate of colleges that meet full need but say they reject some qualified aid applicants.

Some critics point out that colleges that insist they practice "need-blind" admissions aren't necessarily "wealth-blind." Many colleges are eager to recruit mediocre students from wealthy families who are likely to become big donors.

Peter Van Buskirk, former director of financial aid at Franklin and Marshall College of Lancaster, Pa., and author of "Winning the College Admission Game: Strategies for Parents and Students, " says the disconnect between some schools' promises not to count financial need against applicants and their actual enrollment of low-income students shows that "words are cheap. Nobody is auditing these colleges" to see what factors they really use to make admissions decisions.

Christopher Avery, a Harvard economist who has researched college admissions and aid decisions, says subtle biases can hurt low-income students' chances in admissions. Admissions officers may not count financial need against applicants, but they often prefer candidates with parents or relatives who attended the college, which ends up giving admissions edges to the wealthy. Or officers may prefer candidates who were able to participate in expensive extracurricular activities because they didn't have to work.

Sometimes the bias starts long before an application gets to the admissions office. Avery says the University of Virginia, for example, gets few applications from qualified low-income students. He says the school's reputation seems to be discouraging low-income students from even applying.

That's unfortunate, Avery says. Some studies show that qualified low-income students who apply to a mix of schools have good odds of admission, he notes. 

[Related story: Study Calculates Odds of Admission to Top Colleges] 

Officials at schools such as Amherst and Columbia say their reputations for admitting and aiding low-income students is one reason they get more low-income applicants. But Columbia President Lee Bollinger notes that his school also sends recruiters to some high schools that other elite colleges ignore.

Tom Parker, dean of admission and financial aid at Amherst, says other schools could use Amherst's techniques of broad recruitment and participation in the QuestBridge program, which matches low-income students with good grades to top schools. "It is just a matter of priorities," he says. Amherst has chosen to spend its now reduced endowment on aid rather than flashier perks such as rock climbing walls that might grab more attention. "We've been buffeted like everybody else by the economy. … But should we use our unbelievable endowment to make successful and privileged kids even more successful and privileged? That doesn't seem like the right use of the money."

Monica Inzer, dean of admissions and financial aid at Hamilton, says that she and her staffers are delighted that they won't have to reject needy but excellent students any more. But she can't promise that the change will significantly raise the percentage of students from very low-income families. She is confident, however, that the change will result in more opportunities and aid for middle-class families. "We'll be able to admit really hardworking students from working-class families," she says.