In the Dark on Aid Changes

Despite headlines and talk among college leaders, few students are aware of the dramatic shifts in some institutions' policies, poll finds.
January 31, 2008

The dramatic changes in some colleges' aid policies in recent months have captured considerable attention -- not just among those who work in higher ed, but in the news media at large, with plenty of Page 1 articles and television news coverage.

But for all the hoopla about how Harvard University (and others) are now affordable to more families, a new poll suggests that most students haven't noticed. Only 5 percent of students in a national poll said they knew "a great deal" about the changes, while another 18 percent knew "some" about the changes. And more than half of students said that they didn't know whether the changes were making aid packages more or less generous.

The poll was done by Widmeyer Research & Polling, an arm of Widmeyer Communications, which has both colleges and education groups among its clients. The poll was not done for any particular client and was conducted online by SurveyU, which has representative panels of college students for polling (in this case of both two- and four-year institutions).

Experts on student financial aid said that the results of the poll reinforced certain issues facing colleges -- and the reality that dramatic changes made by top colleges will not by themselves adjust the aspirations of most students. The poll also provides new evidence for one of the motivating factors cited by colleges in changing aid policies: that they may be otherwise losing applicants.

Forty percent of students said that they applied only to public colleges and universities, with the top reason for excluding privates being fear of loans. Latino students were the most likely to believe that they could not attend a private college without taking out large loans. Asked what they would like colleges to do about college costs, the top answer was reducing tuition (70 percent), while a much smaller percent (41 percent) wanted to see more low cost loans.

In terms of information, students appear to value direct information about their own situations -- with 70 percent saying it would be "very helpful" to have information about how much their family could expect to receive and 63 percent valuing calculators some colleges are putting on their Web sites. Information that relates to students as a cohort was of less interest. Only 28 percent wanted case studies showing how much different kinds of students receive, and only 23 percent said it was "very useful" to know the percentage of students receiving aid.

Robert J. Massa, vice president for enrollment and college relations at Dickinson College, said he wasn't surprised that relatively few students are aware of the recent change. Historically, he said, students have assumed private colleges are more expensive than they are -- while underestimating the sources of aid available.

Massa also said that the poll results may be too broad in that most students never have any intention of going to one of the more competitive private colleges and may feel that they have no reason to follow their aid changes. "Those of us at highly selective private colleges think our world is higher education -- but in fact, two-thirds of America's college students attend schools that charge less than $4,750 a year in tuition. So why would more than a handful of students care about what Harvard does?"

Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, said that the lack of student awareness of the aid changes reflected a larger reality: Policy changes on aid policy don't mean much if they aren't followed up with both recruitment and offers of admission. "I count enrollments -- it's all just public relations until I see the numbers," he said.

While Mortenson is a scholar of aid policies, he said that students also count enrollments -- just in a different way. They are more likely to form opinions on whether colleges are accessible based on whether those institutions are coming to their high schools, and whether students a year ahead received admissions offers, and whether any enrolled -- not over whether there are lots of articles about aid policy changes.

"I think the most important thing is what the recruiting staff in the admissions office does," Mortenson said. "What are their marching orders? It is very easy for these elite schools to go to their feeder schools -- public and private. It's a lot harder to go into rural districts, inner city districts, those that don't have a large class of high score kids who know who you are."

To most high school students, college financial aid is "the most complicated black box in the world," dealing with sums of money and procedures they don't understand, he said. So it's not the policy alone, but whether there are real signs of institutional commitment. Mortenson is a frequent critic of elite colleges for not doing enough to actually admit students and recently has been praising Harvard and criticizing Yale University, saying that the former has done a much better job than the latter at outreach and admissions -- a charge that has landed Mortenson in a squabble with Yale officials.

Mortenson also said that the poll provided a good reminder of what students don't know. While some states feature much more opportunity for low-income students in the public sector, Mortenson said that in other states, public institutions are recruiting more affluent students while "you have to be impressed by the variety and innovation of the ways private colleges are trying to make their institutions more affordable."

He said that the students' decisions not to even apply to privates was worrisome. "It's difficult [for colleges] to help when people do not try to open the door."

As for the fact that students think the best way to help with college costs is to lower tuition, Mortenson said that was easy for students to say -- and not that meaningful. Students always say they want lower tuition, but "in a vacuum," he said. "What are you willing to trade off for lower tuition? Less qualified faculty? More junior faculty? Larger classes? Older buildings? Higher taxes? Higher taxes for the rest of your life?"

Students don't always realize, he said, that "lower tuition is not free -- it comes at a cost."


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