The great college aid game: College choice deadline dramatizes family risk

College aid was the deciding factor for five New Rochelle High School seniors who had to pick a college by the May 1 deadline. Interpreting the financial aid packages was a difficult – even financially risky – drama, as some hesitated until the last minute.

By , The Hechinger Report

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    College financial aid played a large part in Camille N’Diaye Muller's final college choice. The New Rochelle High School student, shown here at Harvard University during a whirlwind visit Monday, got a full scholarship to Princeton University and generous aid packages at Harvard and Wellesley College. She chose Harvard.
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This is the fourth article in a series following five New Rochelle High School seniors on their quest for college financial aid. The project is a partnership between the Monitor and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

Two months ago, Esteban Acevedo’s hopes were high. He was waiting to hear from his top choice, the University of Chicago, and a half dozen other schools that rank among America's most selective. He knew he wouldn’t get into all of them but he thought his chances were good at a few. Since immigrating from his native Colombia four years ago, Esteban has worked hard to learn English and become a top student at New Rochelle High School in suburban New York.

Then in mid-March, he learned that Chicago had rejected him. 

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“It affected how I viewed things,” Esteban says. “I was more pessimistic. I kind of felt like I was seeing life in a darker light.” 

Fortunately, his world soon got a lot brighter. At the end of March, he was accepted at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Amherst College in Massachusetts, among other schools. Both offered him substantial financial aid. He needs that because his father, a porter, and his mother, a home attendant, can’t afford the annual cost for him to attend those elite schools, which can top $60,000 a year.

He visited both schools and, last weekend, settled on Dartmouth because, among other reasons, he was impressed by Dartmouth students’ passion for their school.  

“I feel so much more motivated now to do more things in my future, to just keep striving for bigger goals and keep working hard,” says Esteban, who hopes to become a doctor. “It’s just great.”

This is the time of year when seniors who have been waiting all year for admission committees to determine their futures finally get to be the deciders. 

The looming deadline is today (May 1), when they have to accept one school’s offer. Most schools also require a deposit.

For the five New Rochelle High School seniors who are the subjects of this yearlong series, getting in was just the first step in that process. They also had to weigh financial aid packages from the schools that accepted them and find a school they like and can afford.  

Interpreting the financial aid packages can be difficult – even financially risk – for families new to the process. 

Michael Kenny, the director of guidance at the school, says parents sometimes ask counselors there to explain what an offer means. Many parents don’t understand that loans are not scholarships and that the money will have to be paid back by either the student or the parents. “It’s much more complex than it appears to be,” Mr. Kenny says.

He also thinks families should be looking at other numbers as well – such as the percentage of students who graduate on time. That’s usually available on a college’s website. “You don’t want to end up in debt when you are not even likely to get the degree,” he says. 

One of the students, Camille N’Diaye-Muller, was making a choice available to only a tiny percentage of top-performing seniors. In December, she learned that she had been awarded a full scholarship to Princeton University through a program called QuestBridge that matches low-income students with top colleges. She visited the school twice and was impressed with the academics, the other students – just about everything on the New Jersey campus. 

But at the end of March, she learned that she had also been accepted at Harvard University and Wellesley College, with generous aid packages. 

Her mother, a public school teacher in the Bronx, “was really waiting for the financial aid packages,” Camille says. “But since then, she said, ‘You have to make the choice for yourself.’ ” 

A week ago, she was still undecided. “I am really just looking to see which community I feel better in,” she said before she went to the Boston area for whirlwind tours of Harvard and Wellesley last weekend. Late last night, she told Harvard she would be attending in the fall. “Though I know exactly the moment I decided this weekend, I was hesitant to give up such a great opportunity at Princeton,” she says. In the end, she was won over by talking with future classmates, “some of the most interesting, multifaceted people I've ever met.”

Matisse Clayton was also looking for the right fit, and she knew that money might be the most important factor in her decision. She was choosing between two schools in Washington, D.C. – American University and The Catholic University of America – and Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. 

Both American and Catholic offered her substantial aid, but her parents would still have to pay part of her tuition and her room and board. She got a “full ride” from Binghamton, a top SUNY school about three hours from New Rochelle.

Even before she visited Binghamton late last week, she says her whole family was rooting for the school. The substantial financial aid means that her parents, who run a restaurant in New Rochelle, will be able to pay for some perks – such as study abroad. That’s why she was hoping to love it, and she did.

“It's official! Binghamton University Class of 2018!” she tweeted right after she visited this weekend. 

For some students, that May 1 date might not be the end of the process. In the past few decades, the number of colleges students apply to has risen dramatically, from half a dozen to twice that and more. A major reason has been increased use of the Common Application, which allows students to apply to many colleges using just one form. That has also meant constant adjustment in the way schools calculate how many students they need to accept in order to ensure a full freshman class. The percentage of students who accept admissions offers is called the yield, and it varies widely from about 80 percent at Harvard to under 25 percent at many other schools. 

Unpredictable yields have led many schools to increase the number of students on their waiting lists – and that adds to the stress. A process that should be ending now might continue through the spring and even the summer as schools admit waiting list students. A student might choose a college and make the May 1 deposit – ranging from $100 to nearly $1,000 – knowing that he or she will forfeit that money if a school they like better plucks them from the waiting list later. It’s a loss some students are willing to take. 

Adaugo Ezike wants to study biomedical engineering and won scholarships to some of the country’s top engineering schools, including Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y.; Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill.; Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh; and Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta. She knows Carnegie Mellon well because one of her older brothers is a student there. Family friends attended Cornell and urged her to accept the upstate New York school’s offer.

Adaugo took their advice. “Visiting really solidified my decision to choose Cornell,” she says. “The campus was beautiful and the people were welcoming. I didn't have the opportunity to visit some of the schools I was accepted to because of distance and time. However, my hunch says that Cornell is the right choice.” She also thinks that Cornell has “the strongest engineering program of the schools [to which] I was accepted.”

But she was also offered a place on the waiting list at other schools that she is still interested in. Ending up on the waiting lists was disappointing, but she understands why it happened. A top student throughout most of high school, Adaugo says she “kind of slipped in my grades senior year,” especially in the second marking period. She was taking tough courses: four Advanced Placement courses and an honors course in differential equations. She also had responsibilities at home helping to care for her younger brother, Dioka, 14, who has been diagnosed with autism. 

Choosing a college wasn’t the only thing on her mind. At the end of March, the family learned that her paternal grandmother in Nigeria had died, and the whole family is planning a trip to Nigeria in a few weeks for the funeral. Her parents immigrated to this country from Nigeria, but Adaugo says the trip will be “the first time all of us are going to Nigeria as a family so it will be very special.” 

Until a week ago, Haleigh Doherty was the only one of the New Rochelle students who knew where she would be for the next four years. At the end of February, she sent her deposit to Fairfield University, in Connecticut, where she had won a $25,000 annual scholarship. In late March, she also learned that she would be in the honors program at the school – which means she will be taking honors seminars and will be exempt from certain core classes. The news only confirmed her belief that she had made the right choice. 

The past couple of months have also given her some perspective on the college process. As students cope with rejections, she says teachers at New Rochelle are dispensing some advice that makes sense to her: “If you don’t get into your top school, 10 years from now, you will look back and college will have been great, and it won’t have mattered that you didn’t get in.”

This project is a partnership between the Monitor and The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University. 

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