Financial Aid: Grades, Merit and Talking to Kids About Paying for College Leave a comment

If you are raising your eyebrows now, administrators feel for you. They do not like the equity implications of merit aid either, even if affluent families who get $20,000 discounts may well be helping to cross-subsidize lower-income ones at many schools.

Yet these managers of enrollment also wonder why you’re so shocked that they use merit aid in the first place. After all, it is awfully hard to fundamentally change a college’s character — its location, the tenured faculty, the type of students who come year after year, what the brand stands for in the market for entry-level employment and 22-year-old law school students.

But price? That’s something administrators can change on a dime.

“I get impatient with people who think it’s an easy decision or that schools that give much more merit aid than we do are somehow being morally corrupt,” said Brian Rosenberg, the former president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. “They’re trying to keep their schools open.”

Indeed, it’s just business, or something like it.

“The better the student — and this includes curricular choice as well as grades — the more money it will take to change a student’s enrollment choice,” said Robert Massa, a longtime admissions, financial aid and communications administrator, when he was working at Drew University in New Jersey before becoming a consultant.

But when I pointed out to Mr. Massa that it stands to reason, then, that students ought to know how this works — so they can take harder classes and aim for better grades if they so choose — he winced a little. “Take a strong course load because you want to,” he said. “Not because you think I want you to.”

If this all sounds rather fraught, you should know that the experts in the field haven’t quite figured out what they’re going to say to their own kids, either. Maureen McRae Goldberg is the former executive director of financial aid at Occidental College and now has a similar role at Santa Barbara City College. She seemed both resigned and exasperated when I asked her what she intended to tell her daughter when the time comes.

Would explaining that her high school performance could be worth a six-figure discount be an absurd amount of pressure? Is it even fair to bring it up when many schools — private colleges, especially — don’t reveal what mark a teen will need to hit to get merit aid at all?

“I am dreading it,” she said. “These are the same questions I’ve been asking for 20 years, and in my naïveté, I thought we’d have some of this fixed by now.”

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