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Emerging trend weighs parents’ finances in aid decisions

Admissions officials can usually figure out fairly quickly who needs financial aid and who doesn’t.

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Admissions officials can usually figure out fairly quickly who needs financial aid and who doesn’t.

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.

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‘‘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.

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.

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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 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.

Where the advantage of wealth may seem unfair is for students who are marginal for a particular college and need a lot of financial aid. They might not be admitted over a similarly marginal student whose parents can pay.

This feeds into why some parents who could qualify for some aid think they will give their children a leg up by not ticking the box that says they want to be considered for it. One counselor who asked not to be named said she sometimes asked parents if they could afford to pay for the first year and apply for aid after that.

Joan Rynearson, an educational consultant on Bainbridge Island, Wash., said there were plenty of affluent parents receiving financial aid. Pitzer College in California said the families of 14 of its 198 students receiving financial aid last year had incomes above $200,000, and at least one student received slightly more than the $56,988 the college costs per year.

Rynearson is working now with a doctor who has one daughter in college and twins who are juniors in high school. ‘‘He will get financial aid even though he’s a well-paid doctor,’’ she said. ‘‘There is an advantage to having twins because your expected family contribution remains the same.’’

She is more concerned with what she calls the ‘‘disadvantaged middle class’’: families that make too much to qualify for financial aid but not enough to pay full tuition.

One of the things colleges do to this group is what consultants call ‘‘gapping.’’ The college may determine that a family needs $20,000 a year in aid but will offer only $10,000 and leave it up to the family to pay more — or go somewhere else. Or the college seems to meet the need but does so with a large portion of loans and campus jobs.

The main advice for parents caught in this trap is to aim their sights lower. Many second- and third-tier colleges will offer merit scholarships to attract smart students whose grades and test scores will increase their academic profile.

The other advice is to think now about your career ambitions and whether you can afford to pay off the loans later. Social workers, for example, may do a lot of good in the world but they do not earn enough money to pay off large loans. ‘‘It’s almost a luxury of the past to be able to go off and enjoy this rich liberal arts experience with no regard to what it costs and what you’ll be doing,’’ Rynearson said. ‘‘My practice has changed in that I feel more responsibility as a consultant to assess student interest and attitudes toward a career.’’

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