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Rich Kids May Have an Advantage When Applying to Colleges

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Filling out college applications can be a stressful time for high school seniors; there’s plenty of grief as they wonder whether their grades, SAT scores, and extra-curricular activities were impressive enough to warrant a letter of acceptance from their dream school. It’s especially nerve-wracking for students who are wondering how in the heck they’re going to finance their college education should they even get accepted.

Lower Grades, More Money? You’re In!

Apparently some colleges are so desperate for cash that they’re willing to reserve more spots for students who can afford to pay full tuition without accepting any financial aid from the school. Top students have always been recruited by colleges and universities regardless of their financial situation, but B students who don’t need aid and apply to a lot of schools will likely be accepted to most of them.

Judy Zodda, a private admissions counselor in Framingham, Massachusetts, spoke with US News and World Report in January 2010. "Full-pay students are getting a break in terms of admission. If they are borderline admits and full pay, they are getting in this year. That was not true three years ago,” she said.

A March 2009 New York Times piece explained it this way: Facing fallen endowments and needier students, many colleges are looking more favorably on wealthier applicants as they make their admissions decisions this year. “If you are a student of means or ability, or both, there has never been a better year,” said Robert A. Sevier, an enrollment consultant to colleges.

Wealthy Students Purposely Avoiding Financial Aid

College admissions officers and private-practice college counselors are saying that wealthier parents are taking note of this current trend, figuring that their children stand a better chance of getting into top colleges if they don’t apply for aid.

“They think their kids will have more options,” said Diane Geller, a college counselor in private practice in Los Angeles and president of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, a nonprofit group that represents private academic counselors. “And anecdotally, it would seem that that’s the case.”

Granting admissions to someone based on their bank account as opposed to their grades and abilities sounds ugly, but most elite private colleges have been following the practice for years.

According to a May 2010 Washington Post opinion column, a 2004 study by the Century Foundation found that 74 percent of students at the most selective universities and colleges in the United States come from the richest quarter of the population, while just 3 percent come from the bottom quarter. As author Richard D. Kahlenberg put it, “Rich kids can’t possibly be 25 times as likely to be smart as poor kids, so wealth and connections must still matter.”

College: It Runs in the Family

Legacy preferences are proof of that.

Legacy preferences are given by educational institutions to certain applicants on the basis of their familial relationship to alumni of that institution: in short, students have a better chance of getting into a college if their mother or father attended the school. Private universities rely heavily on donations from alumni, so legacy preferences are simply admissions boosts for the children of alumni. Critics of the legacy preference claim that they provide overwhelming advantages to the wealthy.

Kahlenberg’s Washington Post column also explained that in response to the growing scarcity of poor and working-class students on campus, nearly 100 universities and colleges have boosted their financial aid programs in the past several years, but even that hasn’t been enough to change the socioeconomic profile of their student bodies.

Based on the multiple news articles and reports that I read online, the trend seems to be that colleges are more inclined to accept students who do not apply for aid. “We’re only human,” Steven Syverson, the dean of admissions and financial aid at Lawrence University in Wisconsin told the New York Times. “They shine a little brighter.”

Should the Wealthy Receive Financial Aid Anyway?


Not in theory, but some people wonder whether students who could afford to pay their own tuition out-of-pocket should receive financial aid anyway.

Knight Kiplinger tried to answer that question in a July 2008 Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine column. As he explained, many colleges offer scholarships or tuition breaks to talented athletes, musicians, debaters and other applicants with special talents. Critics feel that these merit-based grants take money away from needy students, and Kiplinger recommended that a wealthy family whose child has earned a merit scholarship would consider repaying that amount through tax-deductible donations to the college.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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