It’s a tough time to be good, solid college applicant from a prosperous Washington suburb.
I know this based on conversations I’ve had with two friends. One just chose a college for her son, while the other faces a decision in the coming months.
Here’s their situation: Each kid is a standout student from a high school in the Bethesda area, with a grade-point average and SAT scores that fall within the “middle 50” -- between the 25th and 75th percentile among admitted students --- at places like Princeton and Brown.
But neither kid ever had much prayer of getting into one of those schools. Admission rates at the top Ivies have narrowed to 6, 7 and 8 percent. And my friends say their kids face even longer odds, because they live in greater Bethesda, and they are surrounded by other Bethesda kids with even higher GPA’s and test scores, students with three-page CVs who have founded nonprofits and cured diseases.
Consider Walter Johnson High School, my neighborhood school. It is said that almost no one from WJ stands a chance at the top Ivies, such is the competition from neighboring Whitman, Wootton and Churchill high schools, campuses crawling with academic overachievers.
Indeed, over a recent five-year period, Walter Johnson students faced a daunting 7 percent admit rate at Brown, 5 percent at Harvard and 4 percent at Princeton, even lower than those schools’ overall admission rates in that span.
Of course, that leaves plenty very good schools that would happily admit my friends’ kids. But they will then face another dilemma: an uninspiring financial aid package.
There are so many good applicants from Bethesda, and so very many of them are applying to Boston University, Cornell, NYU and Penn, that none of those schools is likely to cough up large sums of aid to ensnare yet another kid from Bethesda.
Some top universities dispense aid solely according to need. But remember, Bethesda’s “middle class” earns quite a lot of money and would be deemed wealthy anywhere else. Families living in tiny Bethesda homes earn enough to price themselves out of need-based aid.
Five or 10 years ago, a Bethesda family might have solved this problem by biting the bullet and paying full price: shelling out $40,000 or $50,000 a year to attend a premier national university that’s unwilling to sweeten the deal with aid.
Today, many families have lost that option. I know of no data to prove this, but financial aid directors tell me that, five or 10 years ago, many families took out home equity loans to foot those enormous college bills. Home equity has evaporated. Today, borrowing $150,000 or $200,000 against one’s home is out of the question. Families are paying college bills out of their paychecks.
What, then, are my friends to do?
Here are five tips, cobbled together from recent conversations with college presidents and admission deans. They range from the obvious to the esoteric.
1. Dig deeper than the Top 20. The A-minus student from Bethesda is not likely to find any great collegiate deals at the top of the U.S. News rankings. Many of those schools dispense aid solely according to need - - a fair system, but one that sadly does not favor the upper middle class. The rest simply have no incentive to offer generous aid packages to very good students from Walter Johnson.
But the economics of collegiate supply and demand are such that when one dips a bit farther down the list, the numbers turn quickly to the student’s advantage. Syracuse, Clemson, Boston University, the University of Washington, and the University of Texas all have admission rates around 50 percent. The same is true for several liberal arts schools at the 30 and 40 rank on the U.S. News list.
Such schools are highly prestigious, but they face much more pressure than the Ivies to sell themselves to strong students, and perhaps even stronger pressure to keep their numbers up.
2. Look for colleges where your kid is above average. The middle 50 SAT range at Williams College is 1310 to 1530, which means that an applicant would need something close to a perfect 1600 to stand out among the applicants. At Scripps College, by contrast, the middle 50 tops out at 1430; and at Earlham College, at 1330, according to 2011 U.S. News statistics.
Aid is based partly on how badly the college wants the kid, and how badly the kid wants the college. A college with a comparatively modest admissions profile will probably offer more money to a Bethesda kid with a 1400 SAT score, because that score will improve the school’s numbers.
By the same logic, only a valedictorian would truly stand out among the applicants to any of the top 10 national universities, where 90 percent of applicants come from the top decile of their class.
But on the second page of the rankings, among the schools ranked 50 to 100, a majority of applicants fall below the top decile; at those schools, anyone in the top 10 percent of a high school class is likely to stand out.
3. Stray from the beaten path. As poorly as students at my neighborhood high school have fared getting into Harvard and Princeton (and apparently at Yale, where fewer than three WJ students got in during the recent five-year span), they have done better at Stanford. The admit rate there is 9 percent, twice that at Harvard or Princeton.
I suspect the reason is that Stanford receives fewer applicants from Bethesda than do the Ivies; students from the D.C. suburbs are a bit less common there.
I have no proof of this, but I have to think that students can overcome some of the local competition by applying to a college that is farther away or lesser known, one that attracts fewer applicants from Bethesda.
A good example is Carleton College. The Minnesota school is a top-10 lib-arts campus according to U.S. News, with an admission rate around 25 percent. But of the 16 WJ students who applied there in the past five years, half got in.
Another is Claremont McKenna College. It, too, is a top-10 school, with a 16-percent admit rate, but of the 15 WJ students who applied, 40 percent got in.
4. Apply to both public and private universities. Often, families don’t think to apply to top public universities outside their state. Those schools charge a premium to out-of-state students, and until recently, they didn’t seem particularly interested in non-residents.
That has changed. Flagship universities in Michigan, Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina and California are becoming much more interested in non-residents. The schools are good enough to charge full market rates - - private rates - - to talented non-residents, and they have come to view the revenue as critical to their survival.
(There are predictions that those schools will eventually charge something closer to full market rates to resident students, as well, subject to their ability to pay.)
Even so, top publics offer competitive merit-aid discounts to out-of-state students with strong academic profiles. Their prices tend to be a bit lower to begin with, so an aid package worth $10,000 or $15,000 a year represents a significant savings.
5. Apply to as many of the schools cited above as you can comfortably afford. Ambitious students commonly apply to 10 or 12 schools now, instead of five or six. They do it to counter application inflation, the steady increase in applications per student, and to raise their odds of getting in. It’s a vicious cycle.
Financial aid gives parents another good reason to tender large numbers of applications. More applications means more aid offers. An applicant who applies to six, eight or 10 colleges where she or he is a strong candidate achieves the same result as the car shopper who calls several dealers. In the end, the family is more likely to get a good deal.
The applications might set you back several hundred dollars. But that’s small change when you’re looking at a $100,000 to $200,000 investment. And it could yield tens of thousands of dollars in tuition savings.