Other Voices

Getting into a college is difficult for the needy

Chieh Huang deserves a round of applause.

The CEO of Boxed, an online shopping business, is paying it forward, using his own money to pay the college tuition for his employees’ children. Huang is eliminating a significant barrier students face in the college process: applying for financial aid.

The real story for most kids applying to college is less heartening.

The ironic encouragement from the Hunger Games series, “may the odds be ever in your favor,” is applicable for families grappling with the costs of college.

The more aid a student needs, the steeper the odds of admission to college. Once admitted, students and parents are faced with taking on significant debt.

While a handful of colleges practice “need-blind admissions,” most do not. In need-blind admissions, a student’s financial need never factors into the admissions process.

These institutions have enormous endowments and financial aid budgets to provide comprehensive financial aid packages. They are rare.

Most institutions use a “need-aware” process wherein ability to pay plays a significant role in who gets admitted. Financially “needy” students are less likely to get admitted than full-pay students.

Simply put, most colleges cannot afford to provide financial aid that meets the needs of all students. This creates an invisible barrier to admission for the majority of students applying.

Most colleges do not invest in need-blind admissions. It’s hard to convince a board of trustees that bankrolling need-based financial aid is important to the future of the institution.

Trustees are usually on a college’s board because of their financial capabilities; spending $60,000 a year for college may not be a financial burden for them.

But for many strong students, that price tag is a burden and a barrier. A four-year private education can cost up to a quarter of a million dollars.

In 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated the median U.S. household income was $51,939.

Affording a private college education is out of reach for most families. It’s equivalent to buying a house they can never live in.

Unfortunately, tuition will continue to rise at a rate disproportionate to the median income of the American family.

Getting in is just half the battle. Once a student is admitted, there is no guarantee the financial aid package will be enough.

Colleges know what a family can afford, but the financial aid packages don’t necessarily reflect this. Often the package leaves a gap between what the family can afford and what the college will provide in aid.

The implication is that the family will have to find money they don’t have.

Adding insult to injury, this underpowered financial aid package often shrinks or remains the same while tuition increases up to 5 percent annually.

Students applying to college face a double dilemma.

If they apply for financial aid, they reduce their chance of admission. If they are admitted, the financial aid packages often don’t meet their need and they face long-term debt.

The odds are definitely not in favor of a needy student.

At the end of the Hunger Games trilogy there is a revolution followed by a new world order. The revolution in college admissions will be born out of transparency on the part of colleges.

Students and their families need to know that applying for financial aid can adversely affect their chances of admission.

More important, they deserve to know what the real cost of four years of college will be before they enroll.

Colleges need to learn from the example set forth by Huang and invest in students by funding need-blind admissions.

This bold move would simultaneously level the playing field for the students applying and ensure the future of those who enroll.

Sara Harberson is the founder of Admissions Revolution. Previously, she was the associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and the dean of admissions at Franklin & Marshall College.