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Let's "Chase Affordable Excellence" Instead Of Just "Chasing Merit"

V. Peter Pitts, M.A.

Hey! I have an idea---Let’s “chase affordable excellence” instead of just “chasing merit.”

“Chasing Merit” How did we get here?

In 1977 when I began in college admissions, there were no popular “ranking systems.” There were a few obscure studies, but none that were widely known. A college cost what a college cost. Colleges were viewed based on their own merits. A few of the more “elite” colleges, known well in certain social circles, charged a bit more than the others, but most were affordable for middle and upper income families. In 1972 the Pell Grant (then called Basic Educational Opportunity Grant) helped to make colleges affordable for low income families.

So what happened? How did we get from “you pay what you pay” to this “chasing merit” frenzy? Frankly, until the last 2 or 3 years, I didn’t even really hear the expression “chasing merit.”

Let’s talk “lemonade stands” for a moment---a parable:

Three kids opened lemonade stands. All three had pretty good lemonade, but one was owed by a well-known, influential family in the community. They charged 30 cents per glass. The other two charged 25 cents. Again, all the lemonade was good. People liked all three. People bought from all three.

One day, a reporter from the local paper tried all three. He wrote an article about the lemonade and announced that the 30 cent one was the best. So what happened? More people lined up for that one, right? And the kid increased his price to 50 cents, making the 25 cent ones look “cheap.” So the 25 cent ones increased their price too, but not to the full 50 cents. They charged 45 cents, but gave out coupons to families to increase the number of people buying their lemonade. But the 50 cent one, due to the article, just kept attracting more and more people. So the kid increased his charge to $1. So the 45 cent one increased theirs to 90 cents, but gave out even bigger coupons to people.

Folks: This is exactly what is happening with colleges. Rankings have pretty much destroyed the integrity of the entire college admission and pricing process. Rather than just looking at colleges based on their own merits and value, people began to totally obsess on “rankings.”

The year was 1983. U.S. News came out with the first set of rankings. Money Magazine followed in 1990. Princeton Review in 1992, Forbes in 2008, and now there are many , many more.

Due to this obsession with rankings, the 1990’s and beyond have been filled with “creative” merit scholarship programs at colleges that didn’t “make” the top. “First in Family” Grants. Campus Visit Grants. Sibling grants. Performance Scholarships. Academic Scholarships. News Flash: These are all just discounts. “Coupons”, as it were! Anything to encourage students to look beyond the rankings and consider the college based on its own merits. Small private colleges, especially, that are not highly ranked face a tough struggle if they don’t play this game. Some give more and more merit. Others reduce their price. They are the exact same college as they were before the rankings, but are faced with a never-ending struggle to keep up.

It’s easy to plot on a graph: The higher the rank, the more selective. The more selective the less (percentage-wise) the merit grants. Frankly, the highly ranked/selective colleges don’t have to give discounts to attract students. Colleges are pretty much in two camps: Sellers and Buyers. Those who want students more than they need them…and those who need them to survive.

Is a highly selective college necessarily any better, educationally, than the less selective? In graduate schools, medical schools, and corporations, there are individuals from all different collegiate backgrounds. They all had “good lemonade.” It turns all colleges have value. It is up to the student, when they initially visit a campus, to determine if the college has value to them! A college education is only as good as the effort that a student puts into it! It’s not where you go, it is what you DO at the college.

I was pondering the other day a “what if” that will never happen, but it is fun to speculate:

What if an Ivy League college had terrible recruiting years three years in a row. Not enough applicants to fill their class. Enrollment declining. What would they do?

A) visit more high schools to recruit

B) attend more college fairs to advertise

C) eliminate their application fee

D) admit a wider range of GPA’s

E) offer merit scholarships

F) change to rolling admission

G) admit students right up until the first day of classes

H) all the above

If they did any or all of these things would it make them any less valuable, educationally? A question to ponder.

Back to “chasing merit.” Now, in the 2020’s, due to the popularity of all the merit awards that people hear about, even some of the more selective colleges are offering some merit awards that look substantial (sometimes $20K+), but wait! Do the math. $80,000 minus $20,000 still equals “too darn much,” right? So please, as you chase your merit, make sure to do the math. A college that just reduced their price to $25,000 might only offer another $3,000 for a scholarship, but once you do the math, the Cost of Attendance (COA) will still be less than a college that might be giving a $20K scholarship. Don’t let the amount of the merit award influence your decision. Do the math.

How much merit aid is enough merit aid? People talk. Parents talk with one another and share information. One person asks for more merit aid and gets it. Soon their neighbors are doing the same. Parents always ask me how to request additional merit aid. First of all there has to be a good reason for your request. You cannot just say that you want more money because you want to pay less or just because you don’t want to take out loans. Consumer debt is not a reason, even though it might be your reason. Colleges don’t care. However any change in income, excessive medical bills, etc. Sometimes makes a legitimate difference. This would need to be carefully documented. Or if your child's GPA or test scores went up dramatically, or if you got a better award from a similar/comparable just need to provide documentation (copy of the other aid award for example) and just politely ask if, given your situation, there is anything else they can do. Other than finding scholarships from outside sources, that would be your best bet. Some colleges have monthly payment plans without charging interest. When I was a college representative it was inevitable, much to our chagrin, that some family would try to turn this into “Let’s Make a Deal.” This seldom occurred in the 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s, but “asking for more merit” has become commonplace in the 2000’s. Please don’t take advantage of these colleges…they are just trying to pay their bills just like you are.

My advice: Set a realistic budget at the very beginning of the college search process. Be aware of merit opportunities. Be thankful that they exist. But a college education is much more important to be entirely decided by dollars and cents. If you are inclined to chase something, chase “affordable excellence”, not merit. Your children will thank you.

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