Need vs. Merit

After disappointing enrollments in last year's freshman class, Wentworth dramatically expands need-based aid.
April 29, 2011

When Wentworth Institute of Technology crunched the numbers for its incoming freshman class last fall, administrators knew they had a problem.

Wentworth, a Boston college of about 4,000 students that focuses on engineering and technology, usually aims for a freshman class of about 1,000 students; last fall, only 945 committed to attending, a blow to an institution that depends largely on tuition for its operating budget.

So Wentworth pivoted quickly, commissioning a study to find out why admitted students didn’t enroll and taking steps to adjust those factors. Administrators added new engineering programs to existing degrees in engineering technology and planned a $3.3 million expansion of need-based aid -- aiming to almost double the number of recipients -- at an institution that previously used merit to determine who received the bulk of its grants. As the traditional May 1 deadline for committing to a college looms, they're hoping that the changes will be enough to make this year's numbers quite different.

As the recession has caused more students to seek financial aid while college budgets have been shrinking, institutions have grappled maintaining enrollments while balancing the use of aid based on need versus merit. “If they can’t afford it, they’re just not going to be able to come,” said Sandy Baum, a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy and an expert on financial aid. “At many schools, they’re saying, ‘Look, before we could stand to lose the people who can’t afford it.’ ” Now, she said, they no longer can.

At Wentworth, the gap between students who were admitted and students who enrolled had been growing for three years, since the recession began. The discrepancy was small at first, but clearly need-based, said the vice president of finance, Robert Totino. The issue came to a head when enrollments for the class of 2014 fell disappointingly short last fall.

The institute hopes the measures it has taken are enough to turn the situation around in less than a year. “We believe we are meeting this head-on, strategically,” Totino said. “It is a big change, but it’s also a necessary change to be in tune with our customers’ needs.”

After last fall's enrollment trouble, Zorica Pantić, the president of Wentworth, ordered a survey of all admitted students who turned down the offer to figure out why they had chosen not to enroll. Two factors were at the forefront of the 300 responses the university received, Totino said: either Wentworth did not offer the specific engineering programs the student was interested in, or the student could not afford the cost of attendance.

Including tuition, room and board, a year at Wentworth costs about $34,000 -- well below what students would pay to attend the best-known private institutions in the area, but far more than the costs at public institutions. About one-quarter of students pay the full price, while the rest receive some form of financial aid, including grants and loans, with a package of about $7,500 on average according to the institution’s website. Historically, the bulk of the aid provided by Wentworth -- and not by federal programs like the Pell Grant or subsidized student loans -- has been merit-based, Totino said. All students who apply are automatically considered for academic achievement scholarships.

“We have not abandoned that,” Totino said of merit-based scholarships; in fact, the plan that would increase the number of recipients of need-based aid would also make more merit aid available. “But we did put aside a significant amount of money for the first time to meet need-based initiatives” for this fall’s freshman class, he said: the total financial aid budget will increase from $20.4 million for the current academic year to $23.7 million next year.

About 1,000 students at the college currently receive some kind of need-based aid, he said. Beginning with the 2011-12 school year, administrators hope to almost double that number. The average grant will be about $1,000, and the expansion will be paid for from a surplus in the operating budget that came about when the school adjusted enrollment projections -- and, accordingly, its budget -- after the freshman shortfall first became apparent, said Jamie Kelly, director of public affairs and institutional advancement.

Institutions can opt to emphasize merit over need in distributing financial aid for several reasons, said Baum, who said she was not specifically familiar with Wentworth or its decision. Merit aid can be used to boost reputation, attracting students with better test scores who might otherwise opt for a more prestigious institution. And it can serve as an additional incentive for students to choose a particular college or university. But often merit aid is also meeting students’ financial need, since it tends to be distributed before need-based grants, she said.

“I think a lot of schools call aid ‘merit aid’ but really it’s going to meet need,” Baum said. “They’ll give out their merit aid first, so they distribute all their merit aid, and for a lot of people they’ve already met their need.”

The shift in aid was not the only step Wentworth took in response to the survey: The institute will also begin offering more engineering degrees this fall. Most programs previously offered engineering technology degrees, which prepare students to work with engineers in the field but not for professional certification.

Those programs were approved in August, just three months after the enrollment shortfall. The financial aid plan was presented at a special Board of Trustees meeting in October.

And although final numbers are not yet in for the fall 2011 freshman class, initial response has been good, Totino said.

“We have seen some preliminary results,” he said. “From some anecdotal feedback we’ve gotten from families, they’re excited with the packages that Wentworth is offering.”


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