Financial aid policies defy easy rankings

In the race to attract low-income students, Harvard may be beating Yale. But University administrators warn that the complexities of financial aid data can make it difficult to rank schools meaningfully.

Harvard University has a slightly larger percentage of low-income students than Yale, according to data provided by each school. But University Director of Student Financial Services Caesar Storlazzi said discrepancies in which low-income statistics universities such as Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Stanford decide to report — along with different ways of calculating family income — have made “apples to apples” comparisons nearly impossible.

“If a student just wanted to pick a college by which school had the best financial aid, I’m not sure they could do that,” Storlazzi said. “I’m not sure I could do that either.”

Based strictly on the data, Harvard seems to have an edge on Yale in the number of low-income undergraduates who matriculate at each school. Last year, 16 percent of all Harvard undergraduates came from families making $60,000 or less and received financial aid from the university, according to the Harvard Crimson.

In Yale’s class of 2011, however, 15.1 percent of students come from families who make under $60,000, while 13.7 percent of the class of 2010 falls into that category, numbers released last week by Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel show.

But percentages of low-income students provided by different schools’ administrators should not be compared directly to one another, Storlazzi said. He said each school comes up with its own formula for analyzing students’ family income in order to determine the level of aid needed.

The analysis generally involves deciding how to weigh assets and factor losses and depreciation since filing into the reported adjusted gross income on tax returns, Storlazzi said. Princeton, for example, always ignores home equity in its calculations, while Yale and some other schools give it some weight, he said.

As a result of differing interpretations of particular family circumstances, one school’s determination of a family’s income level is most likely different from the categorization given to it by another school, Storlazzi said.

“There are as many as 150 variables, and changing any of them can change the end result,” he said.

Schools also vary in the amount of data about students’ incomes they release to the public.

Princeton’s financial aid Web site, for example, lists the number of students in the class of 2011 from families with incomes under $53,500 who received financial aid — 188, or 15 percent of the class.

Stanford, on the other hand, publishes no information about students’ income levels.

“We only know in any detail about students who have applied for need-based aid, so any information we publish would be incomplete,” Stanford Financial Aid Director Karen Cooper said.

The student self-help requirements vary among the schools, from $4,400 at Yale to $3,850 at Harvard. But Storlazzi cautioned against putting too much stock in such comparisons because the minimum wage for campus jobs significantly affects what self-help requirements mean. Yale’s minimum wage is $11.30 an hour, compared to $9 at Harvard.

Nevertheless, Storlazzi said, Yale’s Subcommittee on Admissions and Financial Aid has recently been discussing lowering the self-help level.

“That’s an area where Yale can consider making an improvement,” he said. “It’s fairly straightforward and easy to project the cost of a decrease in the self-help level.”

Among top universities, aid packages not equal

Variations in policy may make comparisons among universities difficult, but those schools’ policies are all aimed at the same goal.

Financial aid officers interviewed said their respective schools are working to simplify the way they present their aid packages to prospective students and to make it easier for low-income students to matriculate. But differences in financial aid policies across universities can make it difficult for high school seniors to choose the best option available to them, financial aid officers at top schools said.

Last year, for example, Princeton and Stanford both joined QuestBridge, a nonprofit organization that connects high-achieving, low-income students with interested colleges. Yale is partnering with QuestBridge this year in an effort to steer low-income students to New Haven, Brenzel said.

Concern about attracting low-income students has also affected larger admissions policy decisions. In announcing they were discontinuing their early programs last fall, Harvard and Princeton officials cited concerns that early application programs hurt low-income students.

“Students from more disadvantaged backgrounds often come from schools without the college-preparation resources to position them to apply early,” Princeton spokeswoman Cass Cliatt said in an e-mail. “Low-income students are often discouraged from applying early because they fear they won’t have an opportunity to compare financial aid packages.”

With their fall schedules lightened, admissions officers at Harvard and Princeton — along with representatives from the University of Virginia, which also discontinued its early application program last year — are going on a joint recruiting tour this month, Harvard Associate Financial Aid Director Janet Irons said.

Representatives from the three schools will travel to 19 cities during November, in large part to increase awareness about the availability of financial aid, she said.

“Instead of reading files, we’re traveling trying to reach out to schools and students that otherwise wouldn’t have information about going to these three universities,” Irons said.

In the past few years, many of the top universities have streamlined their financial aid programs in an effort to help students understand how much their education will actually cost them.

Harvard, Yale and Stanford have each set income levels under which no parental contribution is required — $45,000 for Yale and Stanford and $60,000 for Harvard.

In recent years, Yale and Stanford have both reduced the contributions for families making between $45,000 and $60,000, while Harvard has reduced the contributions from the $60,000 to $80,000 income bracket.

Princeton in most cases eliminates the parental contribution for families making less than $53,500 a year and has a “no-loan” policy that eliminates the need for student loans by providing grants instead.

Yale announced its low-income initiative eliminating parental contribution for families making less than $45,000 and reducing contributions for families making between $45,000 and $60,000 in March 2005.

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