Nearly 20 years ago, Muhlenberg Admissions first published this piece. Then, as today, we remain committed to transparency in the admissions process.
Until the middle of the 20th Century, there was no college financial aid as we know it today. Prestigious colleges would sometimes take financially needy, but very well-qualified, students on scholarships. The overwhelming majority of college students came from families that could afford the full cost of college. And, unfortunately, college was out of reach for many other students.
How College Costs Have Changed
Over time, the total price of college (tuition plus housing, a meal plan, etc.) escalated beyond the reach of even many upper-middle class families. At the same time, colleges came under increasing pressure to diversify their campuses—socioeconomically, culturally and otherwise. A broader cross-section of students came to understand the lifetime benefits of attaining a bachelor’s degree and sought college for themselves. Ultimately, college education came to be seen as a right, not a privilege, and as a necessity, not a luxury. As a result, colleges began to implement financial aid programs to expand access and help families afford the cost.
The introduction of financial aid also meant that the actual cost of a college to a student and family are not always a matter of what the college charges. Instead, it is the remaining costs after financial aid (scholarships, grants, loans and student employment) is deducted from a student’s bill. This can make some college options that seem financially out-of-reach more affordable than you might expect.
For example, the difference between the overall charges and the final cost to a family is often most notable at private colleges and universities. While lower in-state tuition appears to favor public institutions, private colleges and universities often dedicate more of their resources to financial aid. This can make private college options more affordable than in-state public universities.
Most U.S. colleges, including Muhlenberg, also use financial aid not just to overcome financial barriers, but also as part of their recruitment strategy. As colleges continue to shape, rather than simply fill, their classes, money has become a means to enrolling the particular students that an institution most wants. This phenomenon is called “preferential packaging” and is an adjustment to students’ final cost of education.
Enter Preferential Packaging
Preferential packaging means, simply, that the students a college would most like to enroll will receive the most advantageous financial aid packages. Financial aid packages are made up of:
- Grants. These may come from the college, the state, or the national government. They are "gifts," or "free money" and do not have to be paid back.
- Loans. You are entitled to some government loans, and there are others you or your parents must qualify for, but taking loans is always optional. Loans must be repaid, usually beginning six months after graduation from college.
- Work. Colleges and the government both fund on-campus work programs. These programs are designed to help a student meet the total cost of attending college—over and above tuition and fees—in exchange for on-campus work.
A preferential financial aid package includes a far greater percentage of grant aid than self-help (loans and work). Since colleges have discretion over how much of their own money they choose to award a student, a college can award a bigger grant to a student they would really like to enroll. In some cases, the total of a grant from the college and the loans the student is entitled to may exceed the student’s financial need. (“Need” is the cost of attendance—tuition, room, board, books, travel and expenses—minus what a family is able to pay according to a standardized Federal calculation.) In addition, students at the top of the applicant pool may receive merit scholarships designed to reward their outstanding high school record and further entice them to the college.
Students who are admitted but in the bottom half of the admitted student group will probably receive a package that is built first with self-help and any government need-based grants available (also called “entitlements,” including the Federal Pell Grant and the Pennsylvania State Grant). The college will award the student’s entitlements and work first, and then review how much grant money it will take to reach the student’s full need. The college may or may not decide to meet the student’s need in full.
Some students nearer the bottom of the admitted student group are “gapped,” meaning that they have a financial aid package, but it does not meet their full need.
Other students may go on a financial aid waitlist. They will only receive a package if funds become available because a lot of students who were packaged decided to attend other colleges.
What This Means to You
What this means to you is: If money is a factor in your college search and it will impact your final choice, you should make sure to apply to colleges where you are clearly in the top third to top quarter of the applicant pool.
It used to be that you could try for that reach school and if you got in, you didn't have to worry—everybody who got in and needed money, got money. Today, however, as colleges fund a larger share of their students’ financial aid, with a smaller and smaller share from government, foundations and families, institutions are increasingly reluctant to part with money to enroll students who don’t enhance the school’s academic profile.
While the world of preferential packaging may not seem as “kind and gentle” as the process was many years ago, it does have its good points. Perhaps the most important one is that the right students and the right colleges may be finding each other more often.
It might not always feel good, especially when the college you thought you wanted most doesn’t come through with a great aid package. But if an outstanding student is going way out of his or her way with money to enroll at a particular college—paying more to attend a certain college than other options—there must be a good reason. And if an outstanding college is going way out of its way with money to enroll a particular student—offering more grant and scholarship aid than it does to other students—there must be a good reason. Figuring out what those reasons are will be a big part of your decision-making process.
The Good News
This is not all gloom and doom. If a college gives you a great package, they probably really want you and that’s a great feeling. The trick, as with many things in life (and you might as well learn this now rather than later) is to figure out how to want what you can have instead of what you can't.
As colleges work to shape their first-year classes and enroll students who represent all of the college’s (and the world’s) constituencies, highlighting your niche is a very good thing to do. A college’s goal is not to admit a bunch of equally well-rounded students. It is, rather, to create a well-rounded community filled with unique and talented people. If you can figure out how you fit into a college community in a distinct way, be sure to let that college know it.
If your grades and scores put you somewhere in the “big middle” of a college’s applicant pool—“tied” with a lot of other applicants—it is often factors from your background that break the ties. These “tie-breakers” include extracurricular activities, special talents, service to your family, community and others, etc.
Tip: If you don’t know if you’re above, below or in the middle of a college’s applicant pool, a good place to start is the college’s class profile. Remember that more than 1,000 U.S. colleges, including Muhlenberg, are also test-optional. This means that you can choose whether or not to submit your SAT or ACT scores as part of applying.
When the financial aid system works best, all of the colleges that admit you turn out to cost about the same after your packages are completed, and you can make the decision entirely on the merits of each college.
It is more likely, though, that you and your family will be faced with an additional question: “What is the place of money in the final college choice?”
Whether you sacrifice a lot to attend one of your more expensive options, or take the money and run to your least expensive option, you will find that the life lessons have begun before you even sit in your first college classroom.
There are no right answers, only choices. Choose wisely—and good luck!
For more information on Financial Aid and financing a college education, please contact the Muhlenberg College Office of Admission at 484-664-3200 or the Financial Aid Office at 484-664-3175; or email us.