I recently had an opportunity to speak with a high school senior who was evaluating financial aid offers from the colleges he'd been accepted to. He'd applied to a mix of small, private, liberal arts colleges, one in-state public college and a community college.
When the financial aid award letter from one of these private colleges came, it required $6,500 in federal student loans for the first year alone -- and, on top of that, his family would also need to come up with an additional $10,180 to meet the difference between the cost of the college and the amount of grants and student loans the school had set him up with.
Given that this young man qualified for free lunch in school, it seems unlikely that his parents will have the means to come up with an additional $10,180 for the first year, which would mean either more student loans or -- as the school actually suggested in the letter -- borrowing money through something like a PLUS loan.
Is It Really "Right"?
It would likely be a financial disaster for him and his family if he decided to do what he had to do to go to this private college. That left me wondering: Was there really any benefit to the school in accepting him if it knew he didn't have the resources to afford it, and was either unwilling or unable to provide him with sufficient financial aid to make attending a prudent move for him?
The idea of need-blind admissions -- which some colleges have said is simply the "right thing" to do -- is noble: Offering qualified applicants admission to a university, regardless of their financial circumstances. At a handful of highly selective, extremely well-endowed schools, the results of these policies are wonderful, because those schools have the resources to provide sufficiently generous financial aid packages to meet those students' needs. Amherst College, for example, no longer includes student loans in its financial aid packages.
But few colleges have the resources of an Amherst, with its $1.3 billion endowment (according to its 2010 annual report). In too many cases, need-blind admissions lead to Catch-22s for many of the students they are intended to benefit: Those young scholars are accepted to their dream schools, but under circumstances that would make it financial suicide for them to attend.
There would be no shame in a college simply admitting: "We would love to be need-blind in our admissions, but the fact is that we simply don't have the resources to provide all the necessary financial aid for everyone we accept. So if the combination of our financial aid program and your family's resources won't be enough to allow you to come to our school without incurring excessive debt, we're going to turn you down and wish you the best of luck at a college that is a better financial fit. We care about you too much to offer you a chance to ruin your financial life."
It lacks the politically correct sound-bite power of "We accept all students regardless of financial resources."
But such benevolence without the resources to back it up doesn't help anyone.
Zac Bissonnette'sDebt-Free U: How I Paid For An Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, Or Mooching Off My Parentswas called the "best and most troubling book ever about the college admissions process" by The Washington Post.