Understanding how colleges hand out aid can improve your chances

By Jane Bennett Clark
Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Sunday, June 6, 2010

Wander Ursinus College and you'd think you had stepped into an Ivy League idyll. Stone-clad buildings overlook a sweeping lawn, which slopes to a picture-perfect, small-town Main Street. Winding paths skirt carefully tended gardens. Outdoor statues gaze raptly at midair as students stroll by, chattering on cellphones.

But Ursinus College, in Collegeville, Pa., lacks the wealth and status that allow the real Ivies to choose from among the best students in the country and to cover their full financial need with no-loan aid packages. Like the vast majority of colleges, Ursinus must not only troll for top students but also calibrate exactly how much money it will take to bring them to campus and keep them there.

In college-speak, it's called enrollment management -- a way of slicing and dicing admissions policies and financial aid to attract a strong and diverse student body while bringing in enough revenue to keep the doors open. Whereas elite colleges take merit as a given and extend financial aid only to those who need it, Ursinus offers sizable scholarships to outstanding applicants from every economic strata, including the wealthiest.

Surprised? Consider your own college search. As a parent, you look for the best academic program for your student at an affordable price -- the same basic process that colleges use to attract the best students, but in reverse. The better you understand how colleges conduct their deliberations, the better you can go about yours.

Measuring merit

Ursinus's academic reputation once relied heavily on the sciences, especially its pre-med program. When John Strassburger arrived as president in 1995, he broadened the focus to include liberal arts and boosted academic expectations. "We believe outstanding students make other students outstanding," he said.

Richard DiFeliciantonio, who was then admissions director, began reexamining Ursinus's financial aid policy, which focused almost entirely on need.

"The college was enrolling a lower percentage of low-need students and a high percentage of high-need students," he said. "It was laudable, but not sustainable over the long haul. We were making the college commitment really lopsided."

Hoping to attract stronger students who could also pay a higher portion of costs, if not the whole amount, Ursinus moved from a need-only financial aid policy to one that includes scholarships for top applicants. Other colleges, faced with a similar financial crunch, did the same.

"We haven't thrown need out the window," DiFeliciantonio said, "but we've introduced merit into the equation."

To define what constitutes merit at Ursinus, DiFeliciantonio, now vice president for enrollment, devised a system that rates applicants according to their grades, standardized-test scores and accomplishments.

Students who score 1300 or more on their math and verbal SAT and rank in the top 10 percent of their high school class are typically assigned the highest rating, a one. Those with at least 1100 total on their math and verbal SAT and who rank in the top third of their class rate a two. Students who fall somewhat below those criteria rate a three.

But numbers do not represent the whole picture, DiFeliciantonio said: "We read each application twice and have the latitude to bump a student up or down."

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