The decision by Grinnell College to continue — for now — to admit students regardless of their ability to pay raises a question that more and more parents are asking: how much does your financial situation matter in getting your children into college?
Parents have long used their wealth to try to sway admissions officers, of course. But that doesn't always work. And it isn't necessarily true that a needier student is passed up.
"The misperception is schools first look at all the kids who can pay full freight and then look at the kids who are left over," said Kalman A. Chany, a financial aid consultant in New York and author of "Paying for College Without Going Broke." "Parents like to use this as an excuse. They'll say that if my kid didn't have to apply for aid, he'd get in. It's overblown. It's a rationalization."
Still, the vote by the board of trustees at Grinnell, a liberal arts college in Iowa, reflects a broader trend in financial aid. The college counselors I spoke to this week said the majority of colleges had already downgraded their policies to "need aware" — meaning that the colleges accept most of their students without looking at their need for aid but will consider financial need for some percentage of the applicants. Others are already considering a parent's ability to pay in many of their admissions decisions.
These counselors also said that parents and, by extension, their children should start thinking strategically about what financial aid they might receive. This includes being realistic about how desirable their children are to top colleges since they may receive more aid from a less prestigious college.
Grinnell is among a select group of colleges to be both need-blind in admissions and able to meet 100 percent of that need for admitted students. But it is typical of most colleges that reported a drop in their endowments in 2008. Grinnell's endowment is now $1.5 billion, down from $1.7 billion in 2008, and, the college has pointed out, it relies on the endowment for 50 percent of its operating budget.
"Grinnell is pretty unusual to be need-blind and to meet 100 percent of the need," said Jon W. Tarrant, a certified educational planner in Carlisle, Pa. "Most colleges can't afford to be need-blind."
There is an argument, too, that need-blind admissions policies have not created greater socioeconomic diversity on campuses. "One of the ways colleges are need-blind is they are quite literally blind to the neediest students and the conditions they're coming from," said Shamus Khan, an associate professor of sociology at Columbia University and the author of "Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul's School."
"Think about parents who invest $50,000 a year or more in their kids," Mr. Khan said. "You could be looking at $1 million in investments in a kid over 18 years. What need-blind does is compare those students to every other kid who didn't get that."
Still, any talk about changing the way parents' financial situations are factored into their children's admissions prospects plays into worries about ever-increasing college tuition bills. A study last year by The Princeton Review found that most students and their parents said financial aid was either extremely or very necessary for them to go to college.
So how much does your financial situation matter in getting children into college? Both more and less than you think. Admissions officials can usually figure out fairly quickly who needs aid and who doesn't.
"It will be obvious because they didn't file a financial aid form," Belinda Stern, an education consultant on Mercer Island, Wash., said. "Some people are a little more brazen and want to make it clear to the college that they are willing to pay the full ride and come right out and say it."
A student she counseled was admitted to a prestigious college and its business program because his father owned a sports team. But Mr. Chany, the financial aid consultant in New York, said he knew of families who had donated seven figures and their child still did not get in.