How to Use Financial Aid Leveraging When Deciding Where to Enroll

Thursday, April 3, 2014

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

Guest Post by IvyWise Master Admissions Counselor, Nat

If you are one of my beloved students that I work with individually, you are very familiar with my enrollment management style of counseling. I’ve presented my hypothetical “rubric” model to you, that I first shared over eight years ago 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 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 another blog post).

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

The yield on a 24-rated applicant is lower. We, as an institution, are less likely to enroll that student. Conversely, a 17-rated applicant is likely to attend if admitted because we may be their best bet. Although review rubrics are different everywhere, this same 17-rated applicant in our pool might be a 24-rated applicant in another 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 applicant Y qualifies for $45,000 of financial aid. A college or university can meet 100% of this student’s need by giving him or her a $45,000 grant (money you don’t have to pay back), or they can also give the student $45,000 of 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 the student scoring a 24 in the review rubric will get more grant aid and less loan. In many cases, they may get all grant and a merit scholarship (on top of that) in order to entice them to attend the school.

A 24-rated applicant will bring his or her high standardized test scores and high GPA (which are big reasons why they scored a 24 in the rubric in the first place) to our school. We want this student to enroll, so we will give him or her the best financial aid package we can. We’ll still meet 100% of the lower rated applicant’s need, but we’ll do that with more loans and less grant.

Now, there will be some lower rated applicants that we will want to attend just as much as we want our 24-rated applicants because they meet institutional priorities (athletic recruits, diversity, special majors and programs, etc.), so schools may 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 could mean a number of different things to each student depending on what they scored in our rubric and what the financial aid algorithm was going to be that particular year.

My job as an admissions counselor 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 my students will not know that until they ask! Why is it okay for institutions of higher education to plan, strategize and use financial aid leveraging during the admissions process, but it’s not okay for students to do the same?

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 first 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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