In the bid for a fat envelope this year, it may help, more than usual, to have a fat wallet.
Facing fallen endowments and needier students, many colleges are looking more favorably on wealthier applicants as they make their admissions decisions this year.
Institutions that have pledged to admit students regardless of need are finding ways to increase the number of those who pay the full cost in ways that allow the colleges to maintain the claim of being need-blind — taking more students from the transfer or waiting lists, for instance, or admitting more foreign students who pay full tuition.
Private colleges that acknowledge taking financial status into account say they are even more aware of that factor this year.
“If you are a student of means or ability, or both, there has never been a better year,” said Robert A. Sevier, an enrollment consultant to colleges.
The trend does not mean colleges are cutting their financial aid budgets. In fact, most have increased those budgets this year, protecting that money even as they cut administrative salaries or require faculty members to take furloughs. But with more students applying for aid, and with those who need aid often needing more, institutions say they have to be mindful of how many scholarship students they can afford.
Colleges say they are not backing away from their desire to serve less affluent students; if anything, they say, taking more students who can afford to pay full price or close to it allows them to better afford those who cannot. But they say the inevitable result is that needier students will be shifted down to the less expensive and less prestigious institutions.
“There’s going to be a cascading of talented lower-income kids down the social hierarchy of American higher education, and some cascading up of affluent kids,” said Morton Owen Schapiro, the president of Williams College and an economist who studies higher education.
And colleges acknowledge that giving more seats to higher-paying students often means trading off their goals to be more socioeconomically diverse.
Some admissions officers and college advisers say richer parents are taking note of the climate, calculating that if they do not apply for aid, their children stand a better chance of getting in.
“They think their kids will have more options,” said Diane Geller, a college counselor in private practice in Los Angeles and president of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a nonprofit group that represents private academic counselors. “And anecdotally, it would seem that that’s the case.”
“I do think the colleges want to give aid where they can,” Ms. Geller added. “But we all know the economic realities.”
Only the wealthiest institutions traditionally have been need-blind, admitting students without regard to what they can pay. But the definition has often been fuzzy, and this year, it may be more so.
Bowdoin College announced plans to expand by 50 students over the next five years, which Scott Meiklejohn, the interim dean of admissions, said would allow it to accept more transfer and waiting-list students, whose applications are not considered on a need-blind basis.
Brandeis University, which is need-blind except for international, wait-listed and transfer students, accepted 10 percent more international students than usual this year, and Gil Villanueva, the dean of admissions, said he expected that the university would take more wait-listed and transfer students, as well.
Middlebury, which is need-blind and pledges to meet students’ full financial needs, will require students on financial aid to contribute more of their work earnings. It has cut its financial aid budget for international students. It is not need-blind for those on the waiting list or for transfers, but the college has not yet determined how many of those students it will take.
“We consider being need-blind and meeting full demonstrated need one of our basic operating principles,” said Patrick J. Norton, the college’s treasurer. “That is one of the last things that we would consider going away from.”
Those colleges that are need-aware typically admit part of the class without regard to ability to pay, but begin to consider it when the financial aid budget runs thin.
This year, many of these colleges say they are more inclined to accept students who do not apply for aid, or whom they judge to be less needy based on other factors, like ZIP code or parents’ background.
“We’re only human,” said Steven Syverson, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. “They shine a little brighter.”
The advantage is not across the board; it goes to the students at the margins, the ones who would probably be “maybes” when the admissions committee considered applications. Those students are less likely to get in if they are financially needy and more likely to get in if they can afford to pay.
“This is not the majority of the class, or even the preponderance,” said Rob Reddy, the director of financial aid at Oberlin College. “But it’s a factor.”
Even though there is more financial aid this year, more students are vying for it, so resources do not stretch as far.
“It’s not unusual to see families earning $200,000 applying for aid, especially if they have a couple of kids going to college,” said Rodney M. Oto, director of student financial services at Carleton College.
And some campuses are shifting more financial aid to merit aid, money that goes to highly qualified but not necessarily needy students; if tuition is $50,000 and the college offers an award of $7,000, it still gets $43,000, where a needier student might net the college nothing.
Some say it is time to reconsider the cachet that accompanies a boast of being need-blind.
“You can’t say someone should be need-blind unless they have the resources to fund it,” said Dr. Schapiro, at Williams. “It sounds immoral to replace really talented low-income kids with less talented richer kids, but unless you’re a Williams or an Amherst, the alternative is the quality of the education declines for everyone.”
At Carleton, which is need-aware, Mr. Oto said, “I do think we’d all be better off if we were honest with kids that you may not get in because you need assistance, or you need too much assistance.”
Mr. Oto’s fear — shared by many other admissions officers — is that being honest will scare off students who might, in fact, qualify for financial aid.
On the other end, Mr. Oto said: “I suspect it may be a strategy for some folks. We do get the sense that people are getting advice that if you can pay, then you should shoot for the highly selective school.”
Many admissions counselors ascribe the increase in early decision applicants this year to wealthier students’ seeking an advantage. Early decision requires students to attend if they are accepted, so those students give up the ability to negotiate financial aid, and tend to be wealthier.
“Those families in a position to afford the cost of attendance capitalized on that,” said Mr. Villanueva, at Brandeis.
Many colleges, in turn, accepted more students early decision, as a way of securing students in December.
Some families have come back and tried to renegotiate aid after an offer of admission, but colleges caution that there is no guarantee: they have accommodated some requests, but told other students that their offers are firm, and in some cases, released students from early decision agreements rather than give a larger scholarship.
If endowments do not rebound, some colleges say that it will be harder to maintain commitments to the needier in coming years.
Tufts says it is reading applications on a need-blind basis this year, but may not be able to continue doing so. William D. Adams, the president of Colby College, told students in a letter that the college would continue its new policy of replacing loans with grants this year, but that he could not guarantee that future budgets would be able to afford to do so. Grinnell College in Iowa also intends to meet a promise this year that no student graduates with more than $2,000 in loans, but officials say it may be hard to sustain that.
“These are things you’ll have to pry from our hands,” said Seth Allen, Grinnell’s dean of admission and financial aid. “At the same time, you have to be realistic.” (NYTimes)