How to Use Financial Aid Leveraging When Deciding Where to Enroll

Thursday, April 7, 2022

how to get the best financial aid packageHow Selective Schools Determine Financial Aid and Why Some Students Should Ask for More Aid if Needed

By IvyWise Master Admissions Counselor, Nat

If you are one of my beloved students whom I work with individually, you are very familiar with my enrollment management style of counseling. I’ve presented my hypothetical “rubric” model to you, which I first shared at a college fair night at a public NYC high school to rave reviews. My students are familiar with institutional priorities and how classes are assembled.

However, one of the things that I don’t often get to talk about with most of my students is financial aid. I’m excited to talk more about the financial aid process and, specifically, financial aid leveraging.

To fully understand this, I’ll have to share some background information about the rubric that I show my students (and hope to share more with you in the future).

The Reading Rubric

The basis of the rubric is that there is a hierarchal rating score that every applicant receives. Let’s just say that the scale is out of 24, and an applicant scoring a 24 would have scored a perfect score in the rubric (which doesn’t necessarily mean that this applicant is the most desirable, but that’s a different subtopic).

A student scoring a 17 in the rubric may also be deemed admissible, but they are not as “strong” on paper. Also consider that a 24-rated applicant might also have positive decision letters from other schools, but a 17-rated applicant might not have as many comparable options to choose from.

The yield on a 24-rated applicant tends to be lower. A college admissions committee is less likely to be able guarantee that that student will enroll at their college. Conversely, a 17-rated applicant is more likely to enroll if admitted because the college may be their best bet. Although review rubrics are different everywhere, this same 17-rated applicant in one college’s pool might be a 24-rated applicant in a different college’s pool (if they have done their college search correctly).

How the Rubric is Used for Financial Aid

Now, let’s talk about some of the language that surrounds financial aid. We often hear schools say “we meet 100% of demonstrated need.” Well, this can mean many different things.

Let’s say an applicant qualifies for $45,000 of financial aid. A college or university can meet 100% of this student’s need by giving them a $45,000 grant (money you don’t have to pay back), or they can also give the student $45,000 in loans (money you do have to pay back) and technically meet 100% of that student’s need. This is where financial aid leveraging comes in.

What will happen most of the time* is that the student scoring a 24 in the review rubric will get more grant aid and fewer loans. In many cases, the college might offer all grant and a merit scholarship (on top of that) in order to entice the student to attend the school.

A 24-rated applicant will bring their high standardized test scores and high GPA (which are big reasons why they scored a 24 in the rubric in the first place) to the university. The admissions committee wants this student to enroll, so will give the student the best financial aid package they can. The university will still meet 100% of the lower rated applicant’s need, but will do so with more loans and less grant.

Now, there will be some lower rated applicants that the college will want just as much as it wants the 24-rated applicants because they meet institutional priorities (athletic recruits, diversity, special majors and programs, etc.), so colleges might break this algorithm and aid them at a better rate. This creative packaging is a part of what I will discuss below.

Financial Aid Leveraging

When I was a young admissions officer, I found myself telling students over and over that if you are accepted, we will meet 100% of your financial need. What I didn’t know in my first few years is that this could mean a number of different things to different students depending on what they scored in our rubric and what the financial aid algorithm was going to be in that particular year. My job was to share my experiences and counsel prospective applicants the best way possible. I loved working for the institution and I counseled to the best of my abilities, and to the best of what I was taught and knew.

Now that I have been in the profession for a number of years, I’ve come to understand the business of this much more and I’m able to to counsel students with my understanding of this business, meaning I would tell them to approach the schools they are considering and engage in a conversation about whether or not more financial aid is available.

The answer may be that that is the best package available, but students will not know that until they ask! So, I’ll say it again: I would unequivocally tell my students to engage with the financial aid office in every single case where money is an issue for them to attend. This has nothing to do with privilege, but more to do with cultural capital (and I acknowledge that the two are related).

I want to empower my students to learn how to advocate for themselves, and there are many opportunities to teach that after their college applications have been submitted.

If you were admitted to your top-choice school but received better financial aid packages from other schools (which makes sense if you understand the rubric and financial aid leveraging), I do recommend you call your first-choice school and let them know that you would like to attend but you got a better financial aid package from school Y. Share school Y’s package to see what school X can do in your case!


*There are a few institutions with such a commitment to financial aid that loans are not a part of their financial aid packages to accepted students.


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Financial Aid
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