The admissions and financial aid offices of Ursinus College in Collegeville, PA gave access for a Washington Post reporter to write a revealing look at the college admissions process nowadays. Using a process called “enrollment management,” Ursinus, and similar colleges and universities across the country, are raising their published prices in order to “manage” who they let in and how much they should pay. Ursinus breaks down each applicant using standardized formulas based on high school grades, SAT or ACT scores, the family’s income, and a few soft variables like whether the student has visited the college or met with a recruiter. Then, after labeling a student a one (for students with a high test score and high school rank), two, or three, Ursinus chooses whether to offer the student admission and, if so, how much they should get in financial aid. The article makes it clear that Ursinus is trending away from a need-based financial aid process in favor of “merit.” In getting to watch the process behind the scenes, the story offers us glimpses like this one:
The final application under review for the day is that of a student whose family makes about $26,000 and has no assets to speak of. Rated a one, this student is the kind colleges fight over, both to fulfill their educational mission and to strengthen their incoming class. In addition to federal grants, Ursinus offers him a $13,000 scholarship, a $19,000 grant and subsidized Staffords, plus a job through the federal work-study program.
But [Suzanne Sparrow, director of financial services at Ursinus] cannot come up with a package that meets the family’s full need. Along with most colleges, the school often leaves a gap between award and cost, the better to spread its resources. The award falls short by $8,000. Nonetheless, Sparrow said, “with $32,000 in grants and scholarships, it’s a nice package.”
So, after Ursinus “gives” an excellent student, who comes from a low-income family, a $32,000 aid package (including loans), the student will still owe $8,000 a year. Not to mention the $10,950 that Ursinus estimates for on-campus living expenses.
Perhaps the most illustrative passage of the entire process is this one, in which the reporter attempts to sum it all up:
Sparrow wraps up for the afternoon, having allocated more than $100,000 from Ursinus in just a few hours. The college has budgeted $33 million for financial aid for the upcoming academic year, and it will use that money to attract the mix of students it wants.
Notice the verb “allocated.” Ursinus is only “allocating” money in the sense that it’s “moving some money around.” No one is actually receiving any money, just a discount off a price that was purposefully inflated. Ursinus, and colleges across the country like it, are increasingly making those decisions without regard to need.