Charlie Sheen, Tiger Blood or Money for College? Part 1

Following closely behind the frenzied battle arena we lovingly call the “admissions process” is the every-bit-as-stressful and, if possible, even less well understood challenge of seeking funding for college.

I’m by no means a financial expert (really, ask anyone), and I will make no attempt to guide you on investment strategies, fiscal positioning, or appropriate debt loads (which, since I’m in the D.C. area, appears to be fine as long as it’s within one or two trillion dollars of the projected target).  Even the basic terms we use throughout the college funding process are often so confusing you would think the explanations for the financial aid process were secretly written by Charlie Sheen. Since the purposes for aid are often more nefarious than even Sheen might suspect, I’ll attempt to provide a broad overview of the college funding process (unless, as usual, I get distracted along the way).

Although we call them by LOTS of confusing names, there are really just two basic types of fiscal support for college that don’t come out of your family’s pocket: merit-based and need-based financial aid.

Merit-based aid is generally viewed by the public as an award.  It includes, for the most part, what we typically call “scholarships.”  Scholarships can be awarded for being a great student, a great athlete, or a great artist.  They could also, as I’ll explain further, be awarded for being the only one-eyed, red-haired, tuba playing engineer with demonstrated experience in underwater basket weaving student at some particular school, although that’s a bit less likely.

While you may think of it as a reward, the bottom line is that non-need based scholarships awarded by colleges and universities have one purpose: to buy students.  A nicer (although not any more accurate) take is that colleges have goals for their incoming students.  We want them to be smart, talented, popular, and, preferably, incredibly successful with a tendency toward long-term donations.  We want students that will enhance our statistical profile and/or that will cause other students to look and think, “That school must be AMAZING because Suzy is SOOO wonderful!”  As a result, we offer discounts to those students we want most.  Calling them discounts, however, would conjure up unfortunate images of clipping coupons and/or car sales, so we use the far more civilized “scholarship” term to make everyone feel better.

Speaking of discounts, I strongly advise students keep an eye on their final costs -- the total they’ll pay, rather than the listed cost of the institution.  Cost is, of course, not the only way to pick a college -- or anything for that matter.  You wouldn’t necessarily take a free car if you could easily afford some other car that you like FAR better.  Also, if the free car lacks wheels and an engine, that would seem to be a poor option.  Not that I’d EVER compare selecting a college to car shopping, because that would be WRONG! Selecting a college is an important intellectual decision that has crucial implications for student development and doesn’t involve people trying to “sell” or “market” to you.


I had a well meaning mom call just this week to tell me how her son just couldn’t possibly pick Mason because we hadn’t given him enough scholarship money.  She compared us to a private school that had sent him a “very generous offer.”  She even sent me a copy.  I was so grateful that I generously sent back a comparison of her son’s costs at Mason without a scholarship versus the private school that was being so generous with its award.  Of course, even with the scholarship, he was going to end up paying more at the other school.  Mason is just that great a deal! (Yes, that was a shameless plug.  Sorry for the lack of warning!)

More obvious SHAMELESS PLUG: One of the best parts of my job is that I am executive director for two amazing events for outstanding high school students that My College Options cosponsors: George Mason University’s Washington Journalism and Media Conference and the Washington Youth Summit on the Environment.  If you are among the top high school students in any of those fields, check out the websites -- the programs, with speakers from the government, press, Smithsonian Institute and National Geographic Society, among others, are once in a lifetime opportunities.

Speaking of opportunities: Bearing that actual cost in mind, it’s important to understand that, in general, college admissions officers try really hard to be fair in their admission decisions.  Fairness, however, can take a pretty good smackdown when it comes to scholarships.  That’s because institutional goals often have more to do with perception -- building institutional reputation -- than student achievement or quality.  Many schools, for instance, never ADMIT that they grant scholarships based on just test scores, and yet they offer merit-based aid for national merit semi-finalist status, an award based on -- wait for it -- just a test score.  In general, test scores tend to be WAY more important in scholarships than in the general admission decisions, as is rank-in-class and grade point average (often of the weighted variety).  While not universally true, these measures gain more traction in most non-need-based scholarship award processes as colleges seek to improve measures that raise their rankings profiles and/or reputations.

So, how do you get college scholarships? Most academic scholarships are awarded based on your application for admission, although many schools ask some additional questions or even have an additional application for students seeking scholarships. These differences don’t necessarily have anything to do with how hard or easy it is to get awards -- the processes just differ from school to school, so be sure to check carefully for any supplemental questions or documents you might need to complete.

A couple of years ago, I had a guidance counselor explain, at some length, why using class rank in scholarship awards was just unfair to her students.  Her school didn’t rank, but I’ve heard the same arguments about large schools, small schools, and schools where the rankings were based on algorithms that would have given Einstein a headache.  I have the same answer for all of them. If scholarships are intended to raise a college or university profile, and the school is spending student tuition to do so, then it isn’t really about fair, it’s about raising the profile.  Also, it’s possible that life isn’t fair.  You heard it here first.

Coming up in my next blog post:

  • the answer to the burning question, “How in the heck did THAT kid get ascholarship!!!??!!!”
  • more about that award for red-headed underwater basket weavers
  • how the scholarship process and admissions process are periodically in conflict
  • and what you might (MIGHT) do to get more money (note -- this very specifically does NOT include paying anyone to help you get money).

We will conclude with a rousing group rendition of that old favorite,“Is it possible
that this process could be ANY more complicated!?!” after which we will gather together to watch
something easier to understand, like Charlie Sheen’s Ustream videos.

Be seeing you.


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  1. Merit Aid, Part 2: College and Scholarships Beyond Academics - AdmitOne -

    […] a comment I previously rambled on about basic merit-based scholarships and the ways they are awarded: Largely on academic record.  While those are the bulk of the merit […]

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