Universities’ admissions seek out students of means, survey shows

To fill budget voids, colleges are looking for students who can pay the full tuition. With slimmer portions of expenditures allotted to financial aid, universities are increasingly opting to admit students of financial means, a

To fill budget voids, colleges are looking for students who can pay the full tuition.

With slimmer portions of expenditures allotted to financial aid, universities are increasingly opting to admit students of financial means, a Inside Higher Ed 2011 survey of college and university admissions directors shows.

The survey, which polled more than 450 admissions directors and enrollment managers, found that more than half of admissions officers at public research universities were paying more attention to finding students who can attend the college by paying the full price. Similarly, more than one third of the officers at four-year colleges said the same.

Twenty-two percent of the admissions officials at four-year institutions said the financial downturn had led them to pay more attention in their decision to applicants’ ability to pay.

However, Senior Vice Provost for Enrollment Management William Black said there are other methods public universities employ to compensate for budget cuts, such as recruiting more out-of-state and international students.

“We have rolling admissions, which means that we make an admission decision based on a student’s credentials, inform the student of that decision within four to six weeks,  and only create a financial aid award for those students who are admitted,” Black said. “We do not wait for a student to apply for financial aid to make an admission decision. Therefore, we have no concrete information about a student’s family’s financial situation.”

Economics Professor William Stull said that the influence of money in admissions is a “balancing act.”

“Universities have to pay their bills. When they are short on money, they gravitate toward students with the ability to pay. It’s inevitable–the only thing that holds them back is their long-term reputation,” Stull said.

While both public and private universities face constrained budgets, education professor Corrinne Caldwell said it is primarily private universities that are selecting candidates based upon their ability to pay.

“Publics do not discount tuition on a regular basis…so the parents’ ability to pay does not play directly into any tuition calculation. Privates set the tuition at a high level, knowing that they will have to discount the tuition through many different strategies at about a 40 percent rate overall,” Caldwell said.

The issue arises when there are an inadequate number of parents who are capable of footing the entire or the majority of the bill, creating the potential for a deficit. Private universities develop legal methods of eliminating financially disadvantaged candidates.

“They have all sorts of ways of screening out students. If a working class kid has a job at McDonald’s over the summer, and the affluent kid spent the summer fence building with [American] Indians in North Dakota, immediately, they are going to turn down the applicant who wrote about his experience at McDonald’s,” Stull said.

Stull said that, due to reduced state budgets, public universities are beginning to choose more candidates on the basis of financial privilege to rectify institutional debt.

Caldwell said this tactic would “not even be effective” for Temple.

Private schools with such policies suffer by not having a “diverse” incoming class, Caldwell said.

Prospective college applicants also take objection with this tactic, stating that it will limit opportunities for their peers.

“To base value solely on money  is a corruption of the ‘American Dream’s’ meaning.  Our country is the land of opportunity, and its education policy should reflect that,” said high school junior Liz Jiang.

There are strategies that can be implemented to prevent public universities from excluding students of limited financial means, Stull said.

“Public school admissions could be contingent upon meeting certain targets of income classes. State legislators, however, want to get out of business of higher education,” Stull said.

Still, Stull said financial decisions can’t overlook figures like SAT scores.

Despite a typical debt load of approximately $23,000 to $30,000, Caldwell said, a college degree may continue to serve as a catalyst for social mobility, increasing the importance of colleges finding sustainable ways to fund the educations of low-income students.

“College graduation is still the best predictor of future economic stability and affluence but not by any means a guarantee,” Caldwell said. “There still will be mobility, just not with as much disposable income. One thing that we know for sure is that not graduating from college has even more of a negative influence on every aspect of employment and earnings than it has ever had.”

Courtney Thompson can be reached at courtney.thompson@temple.edu.

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