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College Waiting Lists Can Favor the Well-Off

As the clock ticks and financial aid gets short, private schools often select wealthier students.

May 20, 2005|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Many high school seniors dangling on college waiting lists and still hoping to land fall-term openings at their top-choice schools will instead get a lesson in real-world economics: It pays to be rich.

Selective private colleges acknowledge that they sometimes take affluent teens over those from poor or middle-class families needing financial aid when deciding which students to admit from their waiting lists.

The reason, college administrators say, is that financial aid budgets often have been tapped out by the time those admissions are decided in May and June. The money has been allocated to students admitted earlier whom the schools most wanted to attract, rather than the backup choices typically relegated to the waiting list.

"It's the financial reality of things," said Paul Marthers, dean of admission at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

At Reed, where officials take pride in providing full aid packages to needy students, "Every year we have to decide, 'Can we give financial aid to students on the waiting list?' " Marthers said. Often by that point, "The financial aid is just used up."

The practice of passing over financially needy students, little known outside the admissions field, troubles Alex Lee, 18, a high school senior from Canoga Park. He was accepted this spring at several other highly regarded colleges but remains keen on Reed, where he is on the waiting list.

Lee narrowly missed being accepted during Reed's regular application review period in March. Even so, when Reed made admissions offers in recent days to an initial group of about 15 waiting-list students, it skipped over Lee again.

One of the main reasons, Marthers said, is that Lee needs financial aid that Reed isn't sure it can provide. Lee keeps hoping, though, that Reed will find a way to take him before its waiting-list process ends late next month.

Even if Lee gets his wish, many others like him across the country won't get theirs, said Michael S. McPherson, a higher education economist and former president of Macalester College in Minnesota. "The way wait lists are handled gives an advantage to students from affluent families," he said.

Some of the financially needy students are offered admission but may be discouraged from enrolling because the schools provide too little, or no, financial aid. Others don't get chosen at all -- and never have a chance to decide whether they should take extra loans or jobs, or ask relatives for financial help, to attend the schools they had their hearts set on.

McPherson said those results are common at all but perhaps the 40 richest of the nation's 1,700 private four-year schools. He said many of the schools snub financially needy students even earlier in the admissions cycle but that the practice spreads to more campuses during the waiting-list season.

And even the richest schools, including Stanford, USC and Caltech, limit admissions of foreign undergraduates who can't pay their own way.

Rising competitive and economic pressures, some experts say, have pushed more private colleges in recent years to either take a student's ability to pay into account in admissions decisions or to skimp on financial aid for low- or moderate-income students.

The most gifted low-income students continue to be admitted to leading private schools and receive substantial aid packages. But in recent interviews, officials of some selective colleges conceded that economic considerations can come into play after they pick their top-choice applicants, particularly as they review waiting-list students.

Although most applicants to selective schools know where they have been accepted by early April, those placed on waiting lists often remain in limbo until July. Meantime, the nearly 800 U.S. schools with waiting lists determine whether they have filled up a well-rounded freshman class or whether certain types of students-- be they tuba players or engineering majors -- should be included.

Colleges rarely tell the waiting-list students who never get actual offers -- the vast majority of them -- why they were passed over. McPherson lauds schools such as Reed that are honest with applicants about the financial side of these issues.

McPherson, now president of the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation, estimates that, at most of the nation's private colleges, a student's ability to pay for school is taken into account in at least 5% of all freshman admissions decisions. Those decisions, he said, typically occur with waiting-list students and other late-round candidates.

Such preferences for affluent students have been overshadowed in public debate by better-known breaks, such as "legacy" admissions for children of alumni, along with affirmative action for minorities. But waiting-list practices could grow in importance as colleges increasingly rely on the lists to enroll enough students. Predicting enrollment has gotten more complicated in recent years, partly because of the growing number of schools to which high school students apply.

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