Inside the Aid Office
Just how is the money doled out? A day behind the scenes at Pomona College offers some answers
What were they thinking? Millions of students and parents are asking that question as they study college financial aid offers that, typically, don't come close to providing what the families figure they need to pay for college. Officials at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., invited U.S. News to sit in on one day's deliberations for the class of 2011. (To maintain students' privacy, Pomona masked identifying information.)
Here's what Pomona's financial aid officers are typically thinking: how to avoid being snowed by parents trying to game the system, while providing enough money for truly needy students. And they have only the month of March to decide more than 500 cases.
Pomona's awards tend to be more generous and straightforward than most other schools'. Ranking eighth in endowment per student among U.S. colleges and universities, Pomona can afford to award each student as much money as needed. And it remains one of a handful of schools that have refused to follow the trend toward giving scholarships because of good grades or test scores. Like most of the Ivies and other elite schools, Pomona gives scholarships based only on financial need. Still, its decision making is typical, and the following decisions should open the eyes of students and parents alike.
Case 1: Divorced parents
Figuring out the finances of divorced parents is one of the toughest parts of the job, says Chris Michno, a seven-year veteran of Pomona's aid office. About half the time, he says, the parent who has moved away doesn't send the needed forms in an effort to avoid having to pay anything. (Most private schools expect both biological and adoptive parents-but not stepparents in most cases-to contribute to their child's education. Most public universities, however, base their evaluation only on the income of the parent-and stepparent, if any-with whom the student is living.)
In this case, not only has the father, who doesn't live with the student, filled out all the forms, but he appears to be overestimating the value of his real-estate investments. Most colleges expect families to contribute as much as 5 percent of their assets a year (typically, not counting big chunks of home equity, emergency savings, and, in many cases, retirement savings), even if it means borrowing against, say, a vacation home. Michno has checked the value of the father's properties on the Internet. "He is up to his eyeballs in a mortgage," in a slowing real-estate market. "This guy can't come up with much without ruining himself," Michno decides, and reduces the computer-calculated total family contribution of more than $18,000 by several thousand dollars. Michno types up the award: $2,600 in a student loan, about $1,700 from a student job, and nearly $30,000 in grants toward Pomona's $48,230 total cost of attendance for the fall of 2007.
Case 2: Low-ballers?
Robin Thompson, the office's new assistant director, is a little stumped by one of her first aid applications. By checking the application against the tax forms, she has discovered that two professional parents who earn a combined income in the low six figures have underreported their retirement contributions. And they say they own a second piece of property that has not increased in value in many years. She notes they haven't provided any additional information to support that unlikely claim.
She types up an award giving the student about $15,000 in grants. Since that means these parents, who are already supporting an older child in college, will have to kick in nearly a fifth of their income toward this student's education, she expects them to appeal. She writes herself a note on the file. Depending on the manner in which they appeal, she may ask them for more information about the second property. "You have to be prepared when they get back at you," she says. The most successful appeals, she says, tend to be accompanied by evidence that the family truly can't afford Pomona's bills. Attempts to horse-trade by asking Pomona to match better offers don't work, since Pomona considers only the student's financial need, she says. Appeals in person can be especially persuasive.
Case 3: Horatio Alger
It took less than just a few seconds for Patricia Coye, longtime director of Pomona's aid office, to arrange a free ride for a student who had managed good grades and test scores in a very poor neighborhood and school. Pomona, like a growing number of colleges, no longer asks many low-income students to borrow as a part of the aid package, so this student will have to contribute only about $1,000 in work-study earnings. Most students aren't aware that the vast majority of schools expect even the poorest students to scrape together an average of $7,500 a year or so. Only those who apply to the handful of generous schools like Pomona can hope for a full ride. (A list of the schools that claim to meet full need is at www.usnews.com/fullneed.)
But even Pomona's generosity is often criticized, Coye says, remembering a mother who appealed for more aid, complaining that there was nothing left over from her monthly budget, which she said included cable bills, health club fees, and $50 a month in bottled water delivery. Coye wrote her a polite letter suggesting she might consider trimming luxuries. "You can't make everybody happy," she says. But on this day, she had probably made at least one family ecstatic.
This story appears in the April 16, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.