Gillian Spolarich, a high school senior from Silver Spring, chose the College… (Gillian Spolarich/COURTESY…)
Gillian Spolarich’s college search played out like a romantic triangle. She was set on American University. But the College of Charleston was set on her. The Southern suitor sweetened its admission offer with a pledge of more than $10,000 in merit aid.
In the end, the high school senior from Silver Spring took the better offer from the second-choice school in South Carolina, placing price before prestige.
It is becoming a common scenario post-recession: Affluent applicants, shocked by college sticker prices and leery of debt, are choosing a school not because it is the first choice but because it is the best deal. Students are using their academic credentials to leverage generous merit awards from second- or third-choice schools looking to boost their own academic profiles. Colleges are responding with record sums of merit aid, transforming the admissions process into a polite bidding war.
The average student at a private college last year reaped a 42 percent discount on the published tuition, according to an industry survey, a historic high. Admission experts say more colleges use merit awards to lure strong students who might not otherwise attend, including those who could afford to pay full price.
Private institutions spent $2,060 per student in 2010 on aid to families without financial need. That category of aid has increased by half in 10 years in constant dollars, according to the College Board. Public colleges, too, trade in merit aid: They spent $410 per student on aid “beyond need” in 2010, a 37 percent increase in 10 years.
In addition, experts say, a significant amount of merit aid is given to other students. But the total is hard to quantify.
Price has always been a concern in choosing a college. But experts say there is a tradition among many upper-middle-class families — those with six-figure incomes and little hope for need-based aid — of finding the money to attend the most selective school that offers admission, whatever the price.
That is changing, admissions counselors say. Today, even privileged families are questioning the wisdom of paying $50,000 a year for college, especially on an institution that lacks the pedigree of a Harvard or Yale.
“Even if you have money, $200,000 is still a lot of money,” said Lisa Sohmer, director of college counseling at the private, college preparatory Garden School in Queens, N.Y. “The thing to remember is, there are extraordinary educations to be had at colleges that cost all different kinds of money.”
Spolarich, 18, seemed a natural fit at American. Its Northwest Washington campus is close to her Montgomery County home. Its strong communications program beckoned to the senior, an editor at the Blake High School Beat student newspaper. She was one of many AU applicants representing the top 5 percent of their high school class.
The College of Charleston was a more impulsive choice. Spolarich visited the campus while driving to Florida with her mother, drawn to the colonial charm of Charleston and its 18th-century public college, one of the nation’s oldest.
Spolarich soon learned that, with her 3.85 unweighted grade-point average and 30-plus ACT scores, she was just the sort of student the College of Charleston aspired to attract. Her numbers, unremarkable in the AU applicant pool, stood out at Charleston. AU wanted her. Charleston seemed to want her more.
“They were straightforward at the beginning that if she applied, and if her numbers were what she had written on the [information] card, they would be able to make her a very good offer,” said Audrey Spolarich, Gillian’s mother.
The wooing intensified when Spolarich returned to Charleston in March for Accepted Students Weekend. In the honors college, Gillian would enjoy smaller classes, interdisciplinary study, preferential housing and first dibs on registration. She met the college president.
“It was really crazy how friendly everyone was,” she said.
The college offered her enough aid to lower the total annual bill from about $34,000 to about $21,000, effectively erasing the financial penalty for Gillian as an out-of-state student, Audrey Spolarich said.
AU had offered no aid. Tuition, fees and living expenses total about $50,000 a year, typical for a first-rank private university. The Spolarich family did the math. Even with two solid incomes (Gillian’s father is chief financial officer for a federal agency, and her mother is a strategic development consultant), someone would have to postpone retirement to cover the cost.
“And then, I don’t know, my mom and dad were just like, ‘I can’t pay for this,’ ” Gillian Spolarich said. “And I was like, ‘I know, this is stupid.’ ”
Merit aid, uncommon 30 years ago, has grown into a dominant admissions tool at hundreds of private and public colleges seeking top students.
“They’re looking to improve the profile of the class to give themselves bragging rights,” said Douglas Bennett, president of Earlham College in Indiana.