Preferential packaging – college financial aid as a recruiting tool

by Grace

Preferential packaging of financial aid is commonly used by private colleges and universities.  Because schools are not transparent about this strategy, many families are ignorant of how it works.  Muhlenberg College is unusually open about explaining this practice.

Preferential packaging means, simply, that the students a college would most like to enroll will receive the most advantageous financial aid packages.

There are three basic types of financial aid (FA):  grants, loans, and work.

A preferential financial aid package includes a far greater percentage of grant aid than self-help (loans and work). Because they have discretion over how much grant aid they choose to award a student, a college can award a bigger grant to a student they would really like to enroll….

Willamette University also is exceptionally forthright about its preferential packaging.

For students with demonstrated financial need, the percentage of need that is met with “gift-aid” (scholarships and grants from all sources) will also reflect the students’ academic standing within our admitted applicant pool. In other words, the stronger the student, the greater the scholarship award is likely to be.

Let’s look at an example from a CollegeConfidential post.

In this case the college’s Cost of Attendance (COA) is $40,000, and two applicants have the same financial need but quite different academic credentials.

Student A
ACT 33
GPA 4.0
EFC = $7k
Student B
ACT 24
GPA 3.2
EFC = $7k

Student A is more attractive to the college because his stats would improve the school’s stats.  Perhaps Student A is also an Underrepresented Minority (URM), another desirable factor.  Both students will be offered $10,000 in FA, but Student A will receive a preferential package that does not include a loan.

Financial Aid Offered
Student A:  $8,000 grant; $2,000 work-study – Total = $10,000
Student B:  $3,000 grant; $5,000 loan; $2,000 work-study – Total = $10,000

Note that these awards are technically “need-based”, but in fact do take merit into consideration.  If it is the official policy of this college only to offer FA based on need and not on merit, another student with the highest of academic credentials but lacking any financial need (EFC = COA) would receive nothing.

What it means to applicants

  • Students seeking to maximize financial aid should apply to schools where their statistics place them in the upper third of the applicant pool.
  • Students with no financial need are shut out of many merit awards that include a need component.

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