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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 04/ 5/2010

Merit-based aid is "to buy students"--Flagel, Part 1

By Valerie Strauss

“Following closely behind the frenzied battle arena that we lovingly call the [college] admissions process is the every-bit-as-stressful and, if possible, even less well understood challenge of seeking funding for college.”

That’s the start of a primer on financial aid given by Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions and associate vice president for enrollment development for George Mason University in Virginia.

On his amusing, helpful and irreverent “Not Your Average Admissions Blog, A Beneath the Surface Look at Everything College Admissions (With a Few Shameless Plugs),” Flagel gives good advice to families trying to survive the admissions process.

Flagel has recently written four posts that add up to a mini-course in financial aid, and he has kindly given me permission to reprint them. They are worth the time (as are the other pieces on his blog).

Here’s an outline of the four financial aid posts which I am posting:

Part 1: (Below), an introduction to college funding and basic merit-based aid
“The vast majority of merit-based aid is used, to put it bluntly, to buy students.”

Part 2: Beyond basic merit-based scholarships:
“No matter how incredible your academic record, you’ll likely be shocked when that kid who slept all through junior year gets a larger scholarship from the same school. How is this possible? Just remember, scholarships are awarded to help colleges and universities get the students they want to enroll, not to be fair, just, or even reasonable.”

Part 3: Need-based aid
“Need-based aid is, for the most part, determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or, in street lingo, FAFSA. Actually, it would more likely be “FAFSizzle”, but that’s not important right now. The U.S. Department of Education works hard every year to make the form easier, but the truth is that any way you cut it the form is going to be somewhat time-consuming and confusing.

Part 4: Negotiating college costs
“The months that colleges and universities package financial aid – can seem a little dirty. I’m not talking DIRTY – I’ve yet to hear about a colleague finding a way to engineer financial aid kickbacks or helping the cartels launder money through financial aid. Clearly, however, the process is neither transparent nor easy to understand. For years I’ve listened to my colleagues cry that we’re NOT used car dealers (by the way, I know some very ethical car dealers), but in the end, it comes down to a basic question for most families: Can we negotiate/change the amount we’ll pay for school?”

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By Andrew Flagel
Following closely behind the frenzied battle arena that we lovingly call the admissions process is the every-bit-as-stressful and, if possible, even less well understood challenge of seeking funding for college.

I’m by no means a financial expert (really – ask anyone) and will make no attempt to guide you on investment strategies, fiscal positioning, or appropriate debt loads (which, since we’re in the D.C. area, appear to be fine as long as your within one or two trillion dollars of your target).

Since even the basic terms we use in the funding for college process can be confusing, however, I’ll use this and the next couple of posts to provide a broad overview of the college funding process (unless, as usual, I get distracted along the way).

Although we call them by LOTS of confusing names, there are really just two basic types for funding support for college that doesn’t come out of your family’s pocket: merit-based and need-based aid.

Merit-based aid is awarded for something you are, have done, or might yet do. It includes, for the most part, what we typically call “scholarships.”

Scholarships can be awarded for being a great student, a great athlete, or a great artist. They could also, as I’ll explain further, be awarded for being the only one-eyed, red-haired, tuba-playing engineering student at some particular school, although that’s obviously less likely.

The vast majority of merit-based aid is used, to put it bluntly, to buy students.

A nicer take is that colleges have goals for our incoming students. We want them to be smart, talented, popular, and, preferably, incredibly successful with a tendency toward long-term donations.

As a result, we offer discounts to those students we want most. Calling them discounts, however, would conjure up unfortunate images of clipping coupons and/or car sales, so we use the far more civilized “scholarship” term to make everyone feel better.

It’s important to understand that, in general, admissions officers try really hard to be fair in our admission decisions. Fairness, however, can take a pretty good smackdown when it comes to scholarships. That’s because institutional goals often have more to do with perception – building institutional reputation – than student achievement/quality.

Many schools, for instance, never ADMIT that they grant scholarships based on just test scores, and yet offer merit-based aid for national merit semi-finalist status, an award based on....wait for it.... just a test score.

In general, test scores tend to be WAY more important in scholarships than in the general admission decisions, as is rank-in-class and grade point average (often of the weighted variety). While not universally true, these measures gain more traction in most scholarship award processes as colleges seek to improve measures that raise their rankings profile and/or reputation.

(Shameless plug: Speaking of reputation, one of my favorite recent graduates sent me a Facebook message ... letting me know she had TURNED DOWN the FBI position she was offered (and for which I had recommended her) because the job she took with the company where she interned is SO AMAZING that she’s decided to stay with them. Yes, there are THAT many opportunities in the Mason/D.C. area!!).

Most academic scholarships are awarded based on documents you complete when you apply for admission. Some schools have no additional paperwork and just use the admission application.

Others (like Mason) add additional essays while others have a completely distinct scholarship application. These differences don’t necessarily have anything to do with how hard or easy it is to get awards – the processes just differ from school to school, so be sure to check carefully for any supplemental questions or documents you might need to complete.

Next up, the answer to the burning question, “How in the heck did THAT kid get a scholarship!!!??!!!” to be followed soon after by, “Is it possible that need-based aid could be ANY more complicated!?!”

Be seeing you.

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By Valerie Strauss  | April 5, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Costs  | Tags:  college costs, financial aid, merit-based aid, need-based aid  
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Next: Scholarships: Who gets them and why--Flagel, Part 2

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