Other Voices

The financial aid bowl is the ultimate high stakes game

College graduates take photos during fall commencement exercises.
College graduates take photos during fall commencement exercises. AP

We didn’t have a national championship football team. We had a football field, but it sure wasn’t a stadium.

We weren’t known for our tailgating, but we have a whole lot to be proud of.

My alma mater, Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., made news Dec. 18 when the Huffington Post chronicled how the school allocated millions of dollars to its financial aid program to ensure that no student would be denied admission simply because of socioeconomic status.

Hamilton’s decision to embrace “need-blind” admissions is a huge deal. Parents and students worried about affording college need to take note.

Hamilton is one of only a few dozen colleges in the U.S. that have a need-blind admissions policy. This is the mark of a truly elite college because it eliminates financial barriers and makes higher education an option for all applicants regardless of ability to pay.

When there is a level playing field, the best students get admitted regardless of their financial situation. The result is simple: the college soars and so do its students.

While I’m not focused on rankings, U.S. News & World Report rated Hamilton No. 14 this year on its list of national small liberal arts colleges. Not too shabby for a place without a fancy football stadium.

Hamilton’s lack of a premium stadium punctuates its admissions methodology and its long-term plan. That’s not to say there aren’t great stadiums at other need-blind institutions.

But a college that invests in need-based financial aid has made a deliberate choice. Hamilton chose to invest in its students.

As a former dean of admissions, I know firsthand what it takes to pull off what Hamilton did. When a college practices need-blind admissions, it is able to admit students based on merit rather than ability to pay.

Most private institutions have a “need-aware” process where students who apply for financial aid have a higher standard for admission.

Students who need financial aid are put into one pile. Full-pay students who don’t need financial aid go into another.

At a need-aware college, full-pay students are much more likely to be admitted even if their qualifications are significantly lower.

Money still opens many doors in higher education. .

But access to education is supposed to be egalitarian. If we want to be the most powerful nation, should we just educate the privileged few?

Colleges understand the reality. There aren’t enough full-pay students who can afford $60,000 a year.

Even though students and their families can sometimes take out more loans, the financial burden becomes extraordinary.

Most colleges haven’t taken the expensive and necessary step to invest in financial aid to deal with the changing demographics of the college-bound population. But if they don’t do something now, they will be forced to do something later and at a much higher cost.

Funding financial aid is as patriotic as college football. There is nothing more important to our younger generation than access to a great education.

If we don’t start investing in students from all walks of life, colleges will see their storied foundations crumble.

The brawn and brains of the very best students are the future cornerstones to support these Ivory Towers for many generations to come.

Sara Harberson is the founder of AdmissionsRevolution.com, former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and former dean of admissions and financial aid at Franklin & Marshall College.