College admissions and financial aid: Do rich kids win again?

Sara Harberson is the founder of, former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, and former dean of admissions and financial aid at Franklin & Marshall College.

With many high school seniors completing their college applications over this holiday week, I thought this was a timely topic.

By Sara Harberson

We didn’t have a national championship football team. We had a football field, but it sure wasn’t a stadium. We didn’t even have a real mascot.

Though we weren’t known for our tailgating, we have a whole lot to be proud of. My alma mater, Hamilton College, made news recently when the Huffington Post chronicled how the school funneled millions of dollars into its financial aid program in order to ensure that no student would ever be denied admission simply because of their socioeconomic status.

For those in the admissions field, Hamilton’s decision to become “need-blind” several years ago is a huge deal. For those kids in high school and their parents wondering if they’ll have enough money for college, take note. Hamilton is one of only a few dozen colleges in the country that have a need-blind admissions policy. It is not only rare; it is the mark of a truly elite college because it eliminates financial barriers to make higher education an option.

There’s a reason students go to colleges like Hamilton. It attracts great kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds. High-achieving low and middle-income students are not disadvantaged in a need-blind admissions process. High-achieving wealthy students are more attracted to a place like Hamilton because they know that’s where the best students go. When there is a level playing field and the best students get admitted regardless of their financial situation, a college soars and so do its students. While I’m not someone focused purely on rankings, U.S. News & World Report ranked Hamilton No. 14 this past year on its list of national small liberal arts colleges. Not too shabby for a place without a fancy football stadium.

The lack of a premium stadium is part of the reason for Hamilton’s stellar reputation. That’s not to say there aren’t great stadiums at other need-blind institutions. There are. But a college that invests in financial aid, specifically need-based financial aid, has made a deliberate choice. Hamilton chose to invest in its students rather than a new building or facility.

As a former dean of admissions of another small liberal arts college, I know firsthand what it takes to pull off what Hamilton did. Its Board of Trustees stepped up and agreed to donate at least $500,000 each to ensure that a lack of money would never be a reason to deny a student ever again. If you’re wondering what trustees of a college do, it has a lot to do with giving money at the right time for the right causes. When a college is need-blind in its admissions process, it is able to admit students based on merit and personal qualities rather than whether they need financial aid.

There is a huge difference between a need-blind college and a need-aware college. The most jaw dropping is that at a need-aware college, students who apply for financial aid have a different standard for admission than students who don’t. In a need-aware environment, the “haves” are separated from the “have nots.”

Money is still what opens doors for many, even in higher education. The cynics may say getting into college is no different from getting a job, internship, or contract just because you have the money, power, and connections to do so. But access to education is supposed to be egalitarian. If we want to be the most powerful nation, should we just educate the wealthy in our country? Is college just for the privileged few?

Fortunately, colleges need all types of students — even those with little to no financial capability. They see the reality every day. There aren’t enough “full pay” students who can afford $60,000 a year. And, even though students and their families can sometimes take out more loans, the financial burden becomes extraordinary. Cost becomes the ultimate deterrent to the average family considering college options.

Most colleges haven’t made the expensive and necessary step to invest in financial aid to deal with the changing demographics of the college bound population. But if they don’t do something now, they will be forced to do something later and at a much higher cost. The time has come for colleges to be the best they can be. Prospective students might be impressed by a football stadium; but they and their families are much more likely to be impressed by an offer of admission at an elite college with a financial aid package that makes attending that school a reality.

Financial aid is as patriotic as tailgating and college football. There is nothing more important to our younger generation than education. That’s not to say the football team must go. Heck, I’d be the first to complain if that happened.

But if we don’t start investing in the students from all walks of life, who will hold up the heavy pillars of America’s Ivory Towers? Without sufficient financial aid, colleges will see their very foundations crumble without the brawn and brains of the very best students to hold them up for many generations to come.

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