The Risks of Applying to a Reach School

Many parents and students don't know what the term means in college admissions, and they should.

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Do you know what a reach school is?

I've been surprised recently to find out that many parents and teenagers don't understand what the term means. I discovered just how elusive a concept it is during college talks that I occasionally give at high schools and other settings.

When I ask, "Who knows what a reach school is?" I usually get only one or two people raising their hands.

I'm certainly not trying to lord it over people that I happen to know some higher-ed lingo and they don't. Here's why I'm bringing it up: Appreciating what reach schools are could end up saving your family thousands of dollars in college costs.

[Learn more about how to pay for college.]

I'll explain the potential savings shortly, but first the definition: A reach school is one where an applicant would usually face a remote chance of getting accepted. For instance, let us suppose a teenage boy, who has a 3.10 GPA and 1600 SAT on a 2400 scale, applies to a university where the typical applicant has earned a 3.75 GPA and a SAT score of 1920.

[See U.S. News's Complete Guide to Admissions.]

This school would be a reach for the teenager because most applicants enjoy a higher academic profile. If the teen gets in, he would be lucky.

Now you might be thinking, "What's wrong with that?" If the teenager receives an acceptance letter, he beats the odds. I imagine that a lot of high school counselors believe this, too, which is probably why so many of them recommend that students include reach schools on their college search list.

I happen to believe that applying to reach schools, with some exceptions, is risky. Here's why: Colleges and universities possess a finite amount of money for financial aid. Most schools can't give handsome financial aid or merit aid to all the members of their incoming freshman class.

[Learn more about your Expected Family Contribution.]

Since funds are limited, colleges often reserve their so-called preferential financial aid packages to the students they really want. If you read marketing materials from colleges, however, you usually won't get the sense that financial aid is heavily determined by a college's excitement or lack of enthusiasm for an applicant. Financial aid realities are a topic that admission officers rarely broach with families.

[Read about rebate programs that make it easy to save for college.]

To its credit, Muhlenberg College, a liberal arts college in Allentown, Pa., is one of the rare institutions that is candid with families about how colleges parcel out financial aid. Here is an excerpt from a post, The Real Deal About Financial Aid, posted on the college's website:

"If money is a factor in your college search and it will impact your final choice, you should make sure to apply to colleges where you are clearly in the top third to top quarter of the applicant pool.

 If you are just squeaking in for admission, odds are your financial aid, if it comes to that, will be mostly aid you give yourself (i.e. loans or work)."

I'm sure most students don't understand that they are jeopardizing their chances for financial aid by aiming too high.

So who can apply to a reach school without getting hurt?

Rich students fall into this category. If a family has enough money to pay the full fare for college then applying to a reach school couldn't hurt.

[Read about $60,000-a-year schools.]

Schools that promise to meet 100 percent of every admitted student's financial need also don't pose a risk. Of course, the schools with these gold-plated policies, such as the Ivy League and other schools that are very high on U.S.News & World Report's rankings are also incredibly difficult to crack.

[See the schools that claim to meet full need.]

Here's the bottom line: Be very careful before you apply to a reach school.