TIME Education

How Colleges are Squeezing Students on Financial Aid

Dalia Garcia breathed a sigh of relief when she found out that she had been given enough financial aid to nearly cover the cost of tuition for her first year at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. Because her father earned less than $20,000 a year as a janitor, college would have been out of reach without the help. The aid meant “having a sense of security,” she recalled. And as a high school valedictorian with a high grade-point average, Garcia was able to add several scholarships to her bounty.

Then, heading into her junior year, the money stopped.

“I would go to the financial aid office, they would direct me to websites, and everything was for first- and second-year students,” Garcia said, explaining that college officials told her she would have to find work-study programs or loans to cover whatever her family couldn’t afford.

“I was shocked,” she said. “Especially being closer to graduating, I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t they want to help me?’ ”

Many parents exulting at the financial-aid offers their children have received from colleges this spring are in for a similar surprise, several experts warn. As colleges compete to attract new students, they often often dangle more aid in front of prospective students who are still deciding where to go, and reduce the flow later.

The practice is well-known to education policy analysts. Ben Miller, a senior policy analyst at the liberal think tank the New America Foundation, refers to it as “bait-and-switch pricing.” Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president at Edvisors, an organization that researches and advises on financial aid, calls it “front-loading.” He says it’s the result of schools offering more aid to first-year students and their parents as a kind of “leveraging; they’re using financial aid as a recruiting tool.” Once the student has been recruited, the financial aid declines.

Such drop-offs can leave students particularly vulnerable, especially in this moment of rising tuition rates. Front-loading leaves many upperclassmen facing the difficult choice of going deep into debt to stay in school, transferring or dropping out. To make matters worse, many private scholarships are also restricted to freshmen, and end after the first year. Discovering the loss of funding as suddenly and unexpectedly as many students do is like “getting to the edge of a cliff,” said Amy Weinstein, executive director of the National Scholarship Providers Association, or NSPA.

Kantrowitz estimates that about half of all colleges and universities front-load in some form. Indeed, Federal data bear out that the practice is widespread. They show that a lower percentage of undergraduates in general receive financial aid from colleges and universities than freshmen alone do. The amount awarded to the typical freshman is higher, too, before it then declines. More than 46% of freshmen get tuition discounts, according to an annual survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers —but fewer than 41% of all undergraduates do.

Not everyone in the field believes the practice is misleading or even deliberate.

“The numbers are what they are, but there are so many reasons why it might be happening,” said Megan McClean, managing director of policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. She points to circumstantial changes that could lead to diminished aid, such as a family’s financial situation improving, and upperclassmen who transfer to another school and need less grant money.

“I don’t think it’s intentional,” McClean said.

A 2013 report by the NSPA urged that financial aid administrators disclose to families of students whether they practice front-loading or not, either in person or in financial aid award letters.

McClean said her organization “encourages parents and students to talk up front” with colleges about their financial aid packages. But Kantrowitz said they may not get an honest answer.

“Schools aren’t necessarily open about this,” he said. He has attended meetings, he said, at which parents ask school officials if they front-load their financial aid packages, and the “school acts dumb. They prevaricate.”

Earlier clarity would have helped Garcia. After scrambling to fill the gap left by her diminished aid, Garcia got financial help from Bright Prospect, a nonprofit that assists high-achieving, low-income students, and graduated in 2013. She now works for the organization, managing scholarships, and said she sees a lot of students in a similar position. “The first year looks amazing,” she said, “and then, from the second year on, the financial aid goes down, and the loans increase.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education


Colleges See Gay Students as Growth Market

With enrollment flat, schools are courting LGBT students

Growing up as a fundamentalist Christian in Austin, Texas, Josh Bergeleen says he “didn’t know that gay was a thing.”

That changed when he went off to college at Emory University in Atlanta, and he came out at 18, shortly after beginning his freshman year. Four years later, Bergeleen credits Emory’s welcoming environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students as a key factor not only in his discovering his own identity, but in helping him stay on track to graduate from the business school this year.

“I wouldn’t have been able to continue if not for their support,” Bergeleen says. At one particularly rough point after coming out, Bergeleen stopped talking to his own family and says Emory’s LGBT student support office “made me feel comfortable with myself.”

Student Josh Bergeleen

Experiences like that are important advertisements for schools that are increasingly competing to attract LGBT students. Their efforts are more than a response to the legal and cultural sea change in favor of LGBT rights. They’re good business. Nationally, total college enrollment is stagnant and has been declining at some institutions. Meanwhile, the median age that lesbian, gay and bisexual adults say they came out is 20, exactly when they’re college age, according to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center. And with 92 percent of those polled saying that society has gotten more accepting of them in the last decade, LGBT students are becoming more visible at the same time overall enrollment is flattening out.

“It’s a competitive advantage,” says Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, one of the nation’s first on-campus support centers for LGBT students. “If you want to attract the best and brightest students, you don’t want competitors to get a leg up.”

A growing number of campuses are launching programs to attract and hold onto LGBT students, including college fairs aimed at LGBT applicants, LGBT student-support offices, special graduation ceremonies, and housing and healthcare for transgender students. Colleges and universities are also putting more resources into LGBT student centers, including by hiring full-time employees to direct them.

At Kennesaw State University’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer and Questioning Student Retention Services Office and Resource Center, director Jessica Duvall says she has seen the annual number of visits rise from 158 in 2012, when she was hired, to 494 last year. She has launched programs such as an annual gay history exhibit and a “rainbow graduation ceremony.”

“What is happening now [with LGBT students] is what happened with minorities,” says Jerome Ratchford, vice president for student success at Kennesaw, who was hired 26 years ago to help recruit black students.

Ratchford says a “critical mass of gay students came on campus and organized” in recent years. Administrators determined that, “if they met the needs of these students, the students [would] have a higher probability of being successful.” That would “change the culture” of the school, and lead to more LGBT students choosing it, he says.

During his time at Emory, Bergeleen led gay student groups on campus and worked in the admissions office. Both activities led him to discover “a great demand” among LGBT students for assurances that the colleges and universities they are considering attending will support their identities, he said.

There are about 200 LGBT student centers nationwide, according to Ronni Sanlo, a founding chair of the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals. While there’s no data on the year-over-year increase, Sanlo says that they have even started popping up in the 29 states whose discrimination laws don’t mention sexual orientation and gender identity. Sanlo spoke in Kentucky in the spring, for example, and discovered three new centers on campuses there.

One tool that has helped LGBT students find supportive schools is the Campus Pride Index. The index rates campuses on a scale of one to five stars based on a voluntary survey of more than 50 questions ranging from, “Does your campus offer health insurance coverage to employees’ same-sex partners?” to “Does your campus have a LGBT alumni group?”

More than 400 campuses have now taken the survey, an uptick of 35 percent in the last two years, says Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, the organization that oversees the index.

“Campuses today want to be called gay friendly,” Windmeyer says. “They see they’re going to lose students if they’re not, [and] realize the pool of non-LGBT students is dwindling.”

At the same time, Windmeyer says one of the obstacles in continuing to attract and, especially, retain LGBT students is the delicate issue of knowing who they are. It was only three years ago that Elmhurst College in Illinois became the first American college or university to ask students about their sexual orientation on its admissions application. Since then, only a handful of other schools have followed suit.

“Recruitment starts by learning about a population and what their interests are,” says Gary Rold, dean of admissions at Elmhurst. Until asking prospective students, Rold says, “We didn’t know much about this population.”

Among the things Elmhurst has learned about its LGBT population is that they are more likely than the rest of the student body to be nonwhite and the first in their families to go to college. About half of the college’s incoming students who identify as LGBT are also black or Hispanic, compared with about a third of the general student population. Elmhurst has acted on this knowledge by providing additional resources to aid these new students in their transition to college and highlighting clubs, financial aid and other services aimed at LGBT students on its website.

Experiences like Rold’s at Elmhurst are why Windmeyer says that campuses will best serve LGBT students when they understand where they’re coming from and what they need to flourish on campus. A first step in this direction would be to ask in applications about students’ sexual and gender orientations, he says. But there is resistance to that idea, for reasons ranging from religious believes to concerns about privacy.

“You can’t do it in a bubble without having a way to track who they are,” Windmeyer says.

Bergeleen, for one, is confident that experiences like his will become more common.

“As there is more awareness of LGBT [people] in the larger community,” he says, “more and more kids are going to want to know what resources and information are available. Schools will catch up.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.


East Coast Colleges Follow the Money South and West

Older universities try to keep pace with a shifting population

There aren’t any Greek columns or sprawling green lawns at Northeastern University’s satellite campus in Charlotte, N.C. But the location, on the 11th story of an office building in the middle of the city’s uptown district, is no accident.

Charlotte is among the nation’s 10 fastest growing cities with more than one million people, according to the Census Bureau. And the school is in a neighborhood where economic activity is so hot that office vacancy rates are in the single digits.

That’s how Landon White stumbled across it. The 31-year-old, who works in Charlotte as a project manager for Liberty Mutual, was driving by the uptown campus and saw the Northeastern logo. He’d been feeling the itch to go back to school to “get a competitive edge in my career,” but hadn’t found any suitable programs. White enrolled within four months, and he is on track to get a master’s degree in leadership this summer.

The Charlotte branch of the 116-year-old Boston university is an example of a new phenomenon in U.S. higher education: Rather than waiting for students to come to them, universities are coming to the students, launching money-making satellite graduate programs that generate revenues for the home campus.

Schools have been down a similar road before. In the early to mid 2000s, many American universities enthusiastically added international branch campuses, mostly in the Middle East and in Asia, in the hopes of attracting wealthy students seeking a western education closer to home. The trend reached its peak in 2008, when U.S. universities opened 11 foreign campuses. But many of the ventures failed to meet expectations, and at least 13 international branch campuses run by U.S., Irish, and Australian universities have since closed, according to the Cross-Border Education Research Team at the State University of New York at Albany.

Now, several older American colleges and universities, most of them from slow-growth areas in the East, are opening or expanding domestic campuses in U.S. cities with booming populations and economies, zeroing in on places where there is demand for mid-career education, but not enough supply.

Seeing unfulfilled demand in the Pacific Northwest, Northeastern also established a Seattle campus last year. Emerson College, also in Boston, recently opened a campus in Hollywood, while Bentley University in Waltham, Mass. last year added a branch in San Francisco. And a Bay Area campus of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania — the nation’s oldest business school—established over a decade ago has been doing so well that it was recently expanded by one-third.

Like Charlotte, San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles represent high-growth opportunities for higher education at a time when enrollment in the East is declining. San Francisco and Seattle are also among the 20 fastest-growing major U.S. metropolitan areas, census records show, and the Los Angeles area has the nation’s second-highest population, after metropolitan New York.

“It’s a growing phenomenon, and it’s going to continue,” says Matthew Hamill, senior vice president at the National Association of College and University Business Officers. “If your student population is not growing, you’re looking at what you do best and the future of your programs, and opportunities to enter a new market can be extremely beneficial.”

Private corporations expand in this way all the time, Hamill notes. “People think that colleges and universities should somehow be different, and shouldn’t have these instincts.”

If that was ever true, it isn’t any more.

Wharton’s original decision to set up in San Francisco back in 2001 was “a business decision,” says Bernadette Birt, that campus’s chief operating officer. The school anticipated that the growing population of young entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley was a great potential market for graduate business programs. “It was apparent this was the right thing to do, with all these smart, young people who really needed to learn how to run a business,” she says.

Nearly 400 miles down the California coast, Emerson College’s new $85 million, 10-story building on Sunset Boulevard will “announce in a big way that we are in Los Angeles,” Emerson president Lee Pelton says. The hope is that graduate programs in the college’s specialties of communications and the performing arts will appeal to those seeking a way into the entertainment industry.

Just as a corporation might have done, Northeastern spent 18 months conducting market research before deciding to open in Charlotte, says Philly Mantella, senior vice president for enrollment management and student life. She says university administrators “did a lot of listening” to more than 100 Charlotte-based companies to understand the local economy and “the nuances of the portfolio” Northeastern could successfully offer.

In response, the program was built to accommodate working students who needed to attend school part-time — for whom the university discovered there were few options in Charlotte. The average age of the graduate students in Northeastern’s Charlotte program is 37, and more than 90 percent work full-time, so the courses are delivered both online, and, every few weeks, in conventional classrooms.

Everything about those classes is meant to be practical. “I always ask myself, ‘Is what we’re teaching you today helping you in your job tomorrow?’” says Joseph Griffin, who joined the faculty after 12 years as a project manager in his family’s construction business in Lenoir, N.C.

That’s made a big difference for Landon White, who said he couldn’t find another nearby program that offered a similar experience. Sitting in the open space between classrooms that serves as a place to eat lunch, read a book, or just gaze at the still-expanding skyline full of shiny skyscrapers outside the floor-to-ceiling windows, White said that finding the Northeastern Charlotte campus “put me in exactly the position I wanted to be in.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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