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The Dark Side of Enrollment Management

Published:  October 28, 2013
Publication Image
Image from the paper version of the FAFSA. Most students fill out the FAFSA online and can list up to 10 colleges at a time.
The dark side of enrollment management keeps rearing its ugly head.

Last week, The George Washington University was forced to admit that it has been lying for years about its admissions policies. While the school has long claimed to be “need blind,” it turns out that a student’s ability to pay is factored into its admissions decisions.  The best way to get off a wait list at GWU (and other colleges and universities that follow the high-tuition/high-aid model) isn’t to list your latest achievement or write another essay, but to say you don’t need to be considered for financial aid. This is enrollment management at its darkest—the university enrolls rich students to maximize its revenue, while leaving students from low- and moderate-income families out of luck simply because they lack the resources to pay full-freight.

That’s bad enough. But today, we learned about another trick that enrollment managers have up their sleeves. According to Inside Higher Ed, “Some colleges are denying admissions and perhaps reducing financial aid to students based on a single, non-financial, non-academic question that students submit to the federal government on their [FAFSA].”  The FAFSA asks students to identify the colleges they wish to attend. Colleges then get that information and can see the order in which they were listed by the student.

The problem is that enrollment managers and management firms like Noel Levitz have discovered that students tend to list colleges in preferential order. In an example from Inside Higher Ed, Augustana College found that 60 percent of the students that list the school first on the FAFSA end up enrolling, as do only 30 percent of those who list it second and 10 percent of those that list it third. In a world of maximizing revenues and yield, why admit, or offer a generous financial aid package to, someone who lists your institution third? Don’t forget, that the FAFSA also contains a family’s financial information and Expected Family Contribution—data that allow a college to better understand just how needy a student is. So if you have a Pell-eligible student, who lists Augustana third, honestly, tough luck for that student.

Apparently, this behavior has been going on for a while. But this type of policy should never be the industry standard. It makes the admissions and financial aid process even more opaque to students, especially first-generation college-goers who have no idea that this policy even exists. Such a policy takes choice away from students. It takes away their ability to freely list the colleges they’d like to attend, without fear of repercussion. It assumes that students only care about their first choice school.

When I worked with students at The College Planning Center in Boston, I saw firsthand that low-income, first generation students did list their first-choice college first on the FAFSA. But oftentimes what separated first and second and third ordering of colleges was negligible. They were excited to be going to college, period. For them, the financial aid package was more important than whether they got into their first-choice school. This policy prevents students from receiving financial aid offers that will help them choose a college that meets their needs both academically and financially.

It’s hard to know how many low- and moderate-income students have fallen victim to this policy, but there is, however, an easy solution. The FAFSA should either not allow institutions to see where students have applied or it should list the institutions in alphabetical order. The College Board and ACT should follow suit with the score reports they send to institutions. These score reports also list institutions in the order chosen by students. The admissions process is already opaque enough, putting low-income and moderate-income students at a disadvantage.

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that “need-blind” and “need-aware” policies rarely exist in the truest form. Instead, they allow institutions to hide behind a policy that sounds welcoming to low- and moderate-income families, when really all they’re doing is trying to maximize their revenues and yield rates. 

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