Double Take: Scholarship shouldn’t dictate college choice

Wes: I’ve noticed a trend in college financial aid that raises questions about how late teens make decisions about where to attend. It goes like this: Billy takes the ACT, scores 32, applies to several schools and then takes the best scholarship package offered. Nothing unusual there.

What is new — or perhaps I’m just now catching on — is that many young people who based their college choice on scholarships lose them by the beginning or middle of sophomore year because of “low” GPA. I’m not talking 2.2. I’m talking 3.4 — above a “B” average. That’s where the low-grade basement begins, especially in fields like engineering. And where does this leave the student who descends into 3.3 GPA hell? They can drop out, tap the family savings or most often, apply for federal loans or grants.

That begs two questions, one systemic and the other personal. Colleges must realize how many scholarship students they lose each year, but might they also be factoring that shrinkage into their budget? Every student I’ve been following elected to stay in and receive federal financial aid. Each maintained around a 3.0 GPA. Good enough to succeed, but not good enough to reinstate their college’s funding. In business we call this a “loss-leader.” You give something away for free (the first year of education) and hope to retain the customer even after the introductory offer is over.

Whether that’s happening or not, it leads directly to the personal question: should students choose a college because they receive “free” money? Increasingly, I think the answer might be “no,” particularly if that college is an expensive out-of-state institution. Once they’ve signed up and had their free year or two, they may be hooked. They have friends, a job, a fraternity, a mascot and a graduating class. And after the scholarship is gone, those high tuitions could run up a larger debt than the entire four-year tour at an in-state school.

Kendra: I’ve already applied early action to my favorite schools, meaning I could find out as early as Dec. 15 about my future. Yet, I still receive daily emails from colleges. They seem a bit like desperate, dateless guys a week before prom; they’ll do anything to get someone to join them.

I’m not bashing their persistence, but I have to wonder: how did I end up on some master marketing list? To nerdy students like me, lower-ranked schools offer automatic admission in exchange for a short personal statement. Those who do decide to attend these schools are offered copious sums of money and, if the school has one, automatically admitted to its honors program. All this for no other reason than certain students earned certain scores on the ACT or SAT.

I understand these colleges are trying to raise their ranking by accepting high-scoring students, but some of the “dating” process between student and college is missing. Even a girl who has a pretty dress and no prom date shouldn’t settle for the last-minute guy with whom she’s badly matched.

It may be hard to say no to a prom date or scholarship, but the situation Wes describes above is akin to offering to pay for a date, then forgetting your wallet and requesting the girl go “halvsies.”

College costs have been increasing at a far faster pace than family incomes, and students need to be fully informed when making college decisions. According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees (not including room and board) is $29,056 at private colleges, $8,655 for those going to in-state public schools, and $21,706 for out-of-state residents at public schools. I recently told my parents I’d rather be in debt and have a school that’s in love with me, which given those numbers, made my mom’s eyes bug out. Unfortunately, many of my peers share this view. Sure, it’s ideal if parents can afford to send kids to their dream school, but most families cannot.

Just as you must weigh whether you’d like to go to prom with your friend group or a new prospective date, follow your head when picking a college, not just your heart.

— Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., ABPP, is author of “Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Teens” and “Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens.” Learn about his practice Family Psychological Services at Kendra Schwartz is a Lawrence High School senior. Send your confidential 200-word question on adolescence and parenting to Double Take opinions and advice are not a substitute for psychological services.


Douglas Thompson 4 years, 6 months ago

Kendra, your desire to go to a school that is in love with you is a concerning statement. Colleges are not in love with you, they are money making organizations, yes even state schools. The goal of college is not to have a date, it is to achieve the skills necessary to obtain employment in a field you are interested and can be successful. When you spend the first half of your adult life paying off debt so that you can go to a school that loves you, you will miss out on so many other opportunities because you don't have money you might otherwise have.

Selecting a college may seem like an emotional decision and similar to dating, but it really is not. It is much more important and money has to be part of the decision. Colleges emailing you now are not desperate, they are selling you on their product. I don't care how good your ACT or SAT scores are, you are not that special to the college, you are a statistic they are trying to achieve.

Your undergraduate degree certainly is importance, but don't expect a "higher quality" school to make or break your life. Failures graduate from Harvard and successful people graduate from state schools. The 38th richest man in the US is a graduate of the University of Kansas - I doubt he looks back at college and regrets he didn't attend a better school.

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