College Admission Numbers Game Is All About the Money

College admissions based on income
College admissions based on income

If your child didn't get accepted into their college of choice, the fault may not fall solely on their shoulders. It could have everything to do with your bank account.

The takeaway from the newly released 2011 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College & University Admissions Directors is that who gets in where is increasingly about the money, honey.

The survey found that:

• For many colleges, a top goal of admissions directors is recruiting more students who can pay more. Among all four-year institutions, the admissions strategy judged most important over the next two or three years -- driven by high figures in the public sector -- was the recruitment of more out-of-state students (who at public institutions pay significantly more). The runner-up was the strategy of providing more aid for low- and middle-income students.

• Among all sectors of higher education, there is a push to recruit more out-of-state students and international students.

• Recruiting more "full-pay" students -- those who don't need financial aid -- is seen as a key goal in public higher education, a sector traditionally known for its commitment to access. At public doctoral and master's institutions, more admissions directors cited the recruitment of full-pay students as a key strategy than cited providing aid for low-income students. (At doctoral institutions, the gap was 47% to 40%, and at master's institutions, the gap was 45% to 38%).

• The interest in full-pay students is so strong that 10% of four-year colleges report that the full-pay students they are admitting have lower grades and test scores than do other admitted applicants.

• At community colleges, a focus on serving students who don't have money remains central, with 66% of admissions directors citing that as a key strategy -- more than cited any other strategy. But even in that sector, a notable minority (34%) said that an important strategy for the institution was attracting more full-pay students.

The findings come from the frank responses of 462 top admissions administrators at nonprofit colleges and universities across the country.

"The survey is a reflection of the realities as many admissions offices experience them -- a strong drive for more students who can pay more," says Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed. "That raises important questions about whether this direction will allow us to expand the pool of college-going students, or will it just lead to more competition for those students who would already likely succeed."

The concern, says Jaschik isn't just about the decisions colleges make, but also about the decisions states make about supporting public higher education.

As if the deck weren't already stacked against those in need of financial aid, says Jaschik, "Also of note, that significant [numbers] (although a minority) of admissions directors are experiencing pressure on whom to admit. This raises serious questions about fairness and ethics. At a time that competition for top colleges is intense, should people have an edge based on who they know?"