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Friday, May 7, 2021

Why you don’t get help paying for college the first time around

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The fall college application season is here. If you’re trying to send in your transcript, cover letter, essays and application forms to schools from here on out, you should start doing so as soon as possible. If you’re trying to request a merit aid check, you should not wait a few weeks after applying to the university of your choice.

Merit aid is the financial aid you receive from the schools that accept you. It’s different from a financial aid award, which is what you receive when you’re accepted. That means schools will provide more aid or less based on what their admissions officials find to be fair or reasonable.

It’s what I like to call the “market test.” In other words, schools set their own criteria. Ultimately, they make the call, even if they and other schools may look at the same data. They might provide merit aid based on grade point average, extracurricular activities, and—in the worst case—perceived academic standards. There’s lots of back-room bargaining and snickering among admissions officers and donors that follow this “market test.”

The problem is that a lot of you have unrealistic expectations. In some cases, you may have started thinking about how much you’re going to get as a result of your application. Now, in addition to trying to secure that degree, you have to focus on how much help you’re going to get to pay for it.

During my time as a college admissions officer, I learned two things: The first is that a lot of students think merit aid means “free money.” They’re often shocked when they hear from the administrator that it’s something they have to pay for out of pocket.

The second thing I learned is that, for many students, the trick to getting what they want is to continue asking for more aid as the process goes on. And, sadly, sometimes I see some of the same patterns repeated again and again.

Last fall, I attended a different school. It offered less aid than we expected. We didn’t get as much help as we’d hoped. I wasn’t too disappointed, because it was a smaller school and that meant that, even if we didn’t get exactly what we’d asked for, we were going to get a good financial aid package. But that was it. It wasn’t about how much help we’d get. It was about what helped us get into a good school.

It’s not just a case of “if you build it, they will come.” Of course we want the kids to get into the school of their choice. But how they do so depends on a lot of factors, including everything from their grades to whether they’re hoping to study in the same subject area at a particular university as they are now. To reach their ultimate goal, those are the variables that matter most.

Things look different when you apply to another school. There, you have a lot more leeway. It’s not only the size of the school, but also what it offers in terms of merit aid. And more will come when you apply again. Schools have an incentive to want to give you as much as possible, whether or not you’re a preeminent student with an exceptional academic record.

I guess that’s the point I’m trying to make. Don’t get blinded by the flashy SAT or ACT scores and worry about all the extra money you need to get into the school of your choice. Focus on getting into a good school.

Don’t make that mistake again. If you have the time, look into what schools are offering merit aid. Asking more often may well lead to more assistance, even if it’s not more money. It’s almost as if they’re trying to find a way to avoid overlooking you.

Ron Lieber is a columnist for The New York Times.

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