Do you hurt your chances of getting in if you apply for financial aid?

If You Check the Box “Yes” Will It Hurt Your Chances of Admission?

Stacy, a slender, dark haired 40-something mom sat across from me, with a conflicted, pained expression on her face.

“Should we apply for financial aid, or will it hurt Carly’s chances of getting in?”

Carly’s first choice college was Duke. She was a great student at one of the top high schools near my office, and had kick-ass extra-curricular activities.
But there was a whole other – emotional – part of the story.

Three years ago, Carly’s dad, an outgoing, hard-charging, entrepreneurial guy, died in a freak accident.

Stacy felt that her husband would have wanted Carly to go to the best school she could, no matter what the price, as a reward for hard work. After all, he left Stacy with a sizeable life insurance payout (although, after Stacy paid off the mortgage and took a look at college costs for her two kids, it didn’t seem as much).

Here’s the first part of what I told her.

Duke is “need-blind” – meaning they make admissions decisions without regard to whether the applicant needs financial aid. That’s the party line at Duke and every need-blind school, at least.

Is this the truth? First, no college admissions or financial aid officer at any need-blind college will admit, on the record, that they see if a child wants financial aid.
They say that, if your child is good enough to get into a college, whether he or she needs financial aid is a separate issue. That’s why financial aid offices and admissions offices are frequently located in separate wings, even separate buildings – to keep things apart.

Most need-blind colleges are highly competitive – they less than 20% -sometimes less than 10% – of their applicants. They reject thousands.

The other category is “Need Aware” colleges – those that consider whether the applicant wants financial aid as ONE of the many factors evaluated (grades, strength of courseload, standardized test scores, recommendations, etc.), lump kids into two categories.

When an application comes in, it gets placed in one of two piles – those who requested aid (“Needs Aid”) or those who didn’t request aid (“Full Pricers”). Each pile is huge.

A college knows ahead of time that 70% of its freshman class will receive aid and 30% will not. (I’m making up these numbers, but they are fair.) If the admissions officer from an elite college rejects one candidate from the “Needs Aid” pile, there are still thousands of wannabes to take up the slack.

Same with the Full Pricers.

So that’s the “textbook” explanation of the two. Let’s look at reality.

I told Stacy,

“Look, I can’t imagine what you guys went through, but I think I understand. Even though Duke says it’s Need Blind, I still feel like if you apply for financial aid, it could hurt your chances of getting in by a scintilla of a hair of a percentage point.

“This is embarrassing, but I guess I’m saying that I have no rational basis for my feelings – I’m just superstitious!”

“OK,” she said. “What if somehow Carly manages to get in, and then we back and fill out the financial aid forms?”

Again, I gave another one of my robotic, boilerplate answers.

“I can almost promise you that you will lose out – probably not entirely, but you will receive 10%, 20% or some amount less than if you had applied for financial aid initially.

“Why? Because admissions officers and financial aid officers know EXACTLY what you’re doing. They’re not idiots. Really – in many cases they’re a whole lot more shrewd than you’d believe – they’ve seen it all.

“I think you’ll get less because they don’t like the way you’ve played the game. They’ll still award some money – in many cases a nice, healthy amount – but probably not as much as you could have gotten had you been honest with them from the get-go.

“They don’t want to feel that you’ve tried to ‘game” the system, especially because you’ll be re-applying for financial aid each year, so this is the start of a four-year relationship.

“Are you willing to take that risk,” I asked?

“Yes, I really feel that it’s what Jeff would have wanted,” Stacy replied.

“I get it. OK, that’s what we’ll do.”

Carly applied Early Decision to Duke. She was deferred to the main, Regular Decision pool, which Stacy and I joked was a major accomplishment, since Carly was a “Plain White Girl” from Long Island!.

Carly submitted applications to several other schools. As she started to get acceptances, we quickly submitted the financial aid applications.
Then, one day in early March, Stacy called me.

“Carly got into Duke!”

“That’s awesome!” I said. “Let’s get the financial aid forms in ASAP!”

“What will we say is the reason we didn’t apply before?” She asked. “Can they rescind her acceptance?”

“Let’s just say that Carly’s guidance counselor said that she wouldn’t qualify, so she didn’t bother applying, “ I said. “No way would Duke take back their offer, either.”

So we rushed in the financial aid apps. A week or so later, we hear back – loans only, for $5,500.

“Is this because we delayed filing,” Stacy asked (the original deadline was November 1st, it was now the middle of March).

“I’m sure that has something to do with it, but we should definitely appeal this award. It’s not like Duke ran out of money in the last couple of months” I said.

So we put together a letter, outlining information that Duke didn’t know about, including that Stacy wasn’t making a huge income as she just returned to the workforce, and her assets were really life insurance proceeds and constituted the bulk of her savings – she had little in the way of IRAs or other assets, and had eight years of college expenses ahead.

The financial aid officer assigned to Stacy was responsive and really nice, writing a long, heartfelt reply along the lines of “Let me see what I can do.”  (I like Duke’s financial aid office!)

Two weeks later, the revised offer arrived: $17,000 in grants!

Stacy was thrilled, I was ecstatic. And I imagined that Jeff was looking down, also happy.

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