On Dec. 14, 2012, James Badas ’17 clicked on a link and was met with a singing bulldog: “Congratulations! Welcome to the Yale Class of 2017.”
It was the most incredible moment of his life, he recalls.
“I remember just running around calling family and friends and feeling like I was floating,” said Badas, a former sports editor for the News. “Yale had been this idea and dream for so many years, and it became my parents’ dream too, so the combination of that and having it actually come true was just remarkable.”
Despite their excitement, however, the Badas family ― owners of a small donut shop in Derby, Connecticut ― knew they could not afford Yale’s $63,970 cost of attendance without substantial financial aid.
But they also expected to qualify for a lot of aid. Fifty-one percent of Yale students are on financial aid, with the University giving out an average scholarship of $43,989 in need-based aid, according to Yale’s financial aid website.
Yale has one of the most generous financial aid policies in the country, offering a need-blind admissions process as well as need-based scholarships. Families who make less than $65,000 annually are not expected to pay anything toward their child’s education, as 100 percent of the cost of attendance will be financed through a need-based scholarship. Families making between $65,000 and $200,000 a year are still granted aid, but are asked to contribute a percentage of their income to their child’s Yale education, and this percentage is determined by a sliding scale; the scale starts at 1 percent for families making above $65,000, and approaches 20 percent at the $200,000 level.
Based off this information ― which is not only available on Yale’s website, but mailed out to prospective applicants and admitted students in letters, booklets and postcards — the Badas family was confident their son would receive a generous scholarship.
And in accordance with advice given to him by a Yale Club of New Haven member, Badas knew not to accept Yale’s offer of admission until a satisfactory financial aid package had been secured. If Badas waited to commit to Yale, the man explained, he would then have leverage if he ever needed to negotiate his aid.
Badas ended up needing this leverage: Yale offered him a scholarship for the entire school year but it was much less than he and his family had anticipated.
His parents set up a meeting with Caesar Storlazzi, University director of financial aid. They explained that the aid had not met their expectations and that part of the assets taken into account was money the Greek couple had been saving for their retirement. Badas’ father told Storlazzi that Heav’nly Donuts, their small, family-owned business, was still recovering from the recession. And then the financial aid office doubled Badas’ financial aid package, making it possible for him to attend Yale.
IN THE SMALL PRINT
Badas, now a senior at Yale, is a financial aid success story. Patrick Doolittle ’17 is not.
Doolittle, a self-described middle-class student, said his father had to pay his own way through school and was “traumatized” by the amount of debt he was burdened with afterward. In order to prevent his children from suffering a similar fate, Doolittle’s father began saving for his children’s education very early. However, Doolittle said, the assets that were intended to serve as a college fund for him and his sister ultimately counted against him.
“[The Yale financial aid office] looked at our need, and because they saw all this money ― that was really only there building over the years because my dad was worried about paying for college ― they barely gave us any aid,” Doolittle said. “Middle class families get penalized for saving money.”
Doolittle said the financial aid offer was not enough for him to afford Yale without taking out a loan. But unlike the Badas family, the Doolittles did not ask for more money. They were pessimistic about Yale’s willingness to adjust their financial aid package.
“We didn’t ask for more. We figured out what happened and were pissed, but we didn’t think there was much we could do,” Doolittle said. “I got into Yale early and got wait-listed at both Harvard and Stanford regular. So I didn’t really have a bargaining chip ― this might’ve been part of the problem.”
Doolittle’s lack of leverage may very well have been his issue ― out of the 16 students interviewed who successfully negotiated increased financial aid before matriculating, 14 of them said they used scholarships from Ivy League schools, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to ask for a higher aid package from Yale.
But Storlazzi clarified that the office does not exclusively work with students who have received multiple scholarships.
“We’re also just talking to people who find that the award we’ve sent them is a little bit out of reach,” he said.
However, the Doolittles found their expected contribution out of reach, and still did not attempt to negotiate. Though Doolittle admitted that his family may have been overly pessimistic about trying again after receiving such little aid, he added that “no one really encouraged” his family to negotiate with Yale’s financial aid office.
But Storlazzi and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said Yale is very open about its willingness to reassess a student’s financial need.
“Obviously we encourage any admitted students and parents with questions or concerns about their financial aid award to contact the Financial Aid Office,” Quinlan said. “And if there is new information available, we definitely encourage them to request a review of their award.”
But the majority of students interviewed did not recall being encouraged by Yale to request a review. Those who were said they heard from high school counselors, athletic coaches, friends, mentors and other outside sources.
Scott Weingold, an independent financial aid and college planning expert, said the misconception that colleges are unwilling to budge on financial aid is universal. The majority of families think the first offer is the only offer, Weingold said.
And Robert Kelchen ― assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Education Leadership, Management and Policy at Seton Hall University ― said this is likely because schools aren’t always completely upfront about the option to negotiate.
“I don’t think colleges generally advertise that they’ll reconsider a student’s financial aid offer, because if they did, it would cost colleges a lot more money as most students would appeal to get more aid,” Kelchen said.
In saying that Yale encourages students to request a review of their financial aid, Storlazzi and Quinlan may be referring to the short paragraph in small print at the bottom of each new award letter, which tells students that they should “feel free” to give the financial aid office more information if a change has occurred since they submitted their original application.
On Yale’s financial aid website, three clicks will get you to page about requesting a review. Again, the office reminds students that “awards can be reviewed if your family’s financial situation has changed significantly since you applied for aid, or if there is additional information that was not included on your original application.” The site lists only three sample circumstances for which a review may be appropriate: extended unemployment, changes in family size and extraordinary uninsured medical expenses.
There is nothing on the webpage or in the award letter about requesting a review if the award is simply insufficient, or requesting a review if a student receives better scholarships from another university.
“I was just lucky enough to have mentors and programs who warned me about this sort of thing,” said Isiah Cruz ’18, who received help throughout the application process from QuestBridge, a nonprofit that connects high-achieving, low-income students with top-ranking universities.
WHO’S IN THE KNOW?
According to Storlazzi, roughly one-third of admitted students ask for a review of their financial aid package, meaning that the majority of students who are offered financial aid from Yale are willing to accept the first offer presented to them by the University. Most of the time, Storlazzi said, students ask for a review of their financial aid offer when they receive higher need-based scholarships from other schools.
“But we’re not only reviewing cases from students who have gotten awards from another Ivy,” he said.
Still, most of the students interviewed for this article attributed their success negotiating with Yale to having more generous scholarships from other schools to use as leverage.
Since each Ivy League school can only award financial aid based on a student’s estimated need, as opposed to merit or athletic ability, Storlazzi said that if another Ivy calculates a higher aid package for a student than Yale does, Yale will typically do its best to calculate a similar number.
Each school uses a different formula to calculate this estimated need, formulas that are “similar to one another but not the same,” according to Storlazzi. Though Yale does not know the exact formulas its peer institutions use, the financial aid office will review an admitted student’s package when the student is offered more aid by other schools. However, the review must be initiated by the student.
Ideally, Storlazzi said, Yale is eventually able to offer students a package that will enable them to attend.
“We don’t say ‘match,’” Storlazzi said. “We don’t use the m-word. But we want to see what we can do within Yale’s philosophy of needs analysis, and, frankly, we do want to see if we can come close to what the other school offered. We want students to decide on fit instead of on finance.”
Storlazzi says that this how a need-based system is supposed to work: If another college calculates that a student needs more money, Yale wants to be able to reach that same conclusion, and give the student a package that makes sense. But Doolittle argued that the system in place is not focused on students, and is instead an indication of competitiveness among schools.
Mark Kantrowitz, a nationally recognized financial aid, loans and scholarships expert, said that colleges are not more or less likely to work with students who have higher aid from another college. Rather, students who have a higher aid offer from another college are more likely to appeal to their preferred college for more aid, Kantrowitz said. This group of students probably makes up the biggest portion of the one-third who request a review, he added.
Though Yale can reread a student’s financial aid package after hearing that the student has been offered a larger scholarship from another school, the other college cannot show Yale the details of its calculation, and the specifics of each college’s aid formula must remain confidential.
Still, Storlazzi noted that there are ways to identify differences between aid formulas. There are over 100 variables that schools can take into account, and it is clear that certain schools weigh specific variables more than others. These variables include a family’s estimated yearly income ― the variable on which most aid packages are primarily based ― as well as number of children in the family currently attending college, a family’s total assets and extenuating circumstances such as medical expenses.
A student who was recruited to be on the heavyweight crew team, and who requested to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic, said their family was shocked when they initially received no financial aid from Yale. The student had been offered $20,000 a semester by Princeton ― a package that was largely secured for them by the coach of Princeton’s rowing team.
“It’s an advantage that recruited athletes can get the coach to handle financial aid for them,” the student said. “The coach talks to the financial aid department, and this direct line of communication can make a huge difference for students. My dad told the Princeton coach that I needed financial aid to attend Princeton, and then when I visited the school, the package was ready for me. It was almost marketed as part of the reason why I should come to Princeton.”
The student said that “direct line of communication” between coaches and the financial aid office also exists at Yale. They were able to get their financial aid reviewed ― a process Yale’s rowing coach set in motion ― and the student was eventually offered the same scholarship of $20,000 per semester from Yale.
But David Shoehalter, Yale cross country and track and field coach, denied the notion that athletes are at an advantage in the financial aid process because of the help they receive from coaches. While the anonymous rower described the role of the coach as an “agent,” Storlazzi described the role as an “advocate,” and Shoehalter described it as a “messenger” ― coaches collect a potential recruit’s financial information and submit it to the financial aid office, Shoehalter said.
Shoehalter said he thinks the idea of a “negotiable” aid package is a misnomer. Once a package is prepared for any student ― not just an athlete ― the student and their family are encouraged to contact the financial aid office if they’re unhappy with the scholarship, Shoehalter said.
“Sometimes there is information that doesn’t exactly show up on the forms that are submitted ― is the family taking care of a grandparent, etc.,” Shoehalter said. “Those factors can sometimes result in the financial aid office changing a package. There are occasions when another school in the league will offer a better package than Yale. In that case we ask the prospect to send us that offer so that Yale can see it and try to determine how the other school came up with the better numbers.”
WHEN TO ADJUST
Yale has one of the most generous financial aid policies in the world, and some students argued that the University has already done enough, and shouldn’t be expected to boost the aid of anyone who comes into the office to complain to them.
And Yale doesn’t, even though Storlazzi said that the University looks for reasons to increase a student’s aid when given the chance.
In order to understand why a student was offered more aid somewhere else, Storlazzi said that during a financial aid reread, the office will play around with different variables in the needs analysis formula to come up with the same calculation as the other university.
In some cases, Storlazzi said, this process can be quite simple. For example, he said that after analyzing higher aid offers from Princeton and Harvard over the years, it has become pretty clear that neither school considers primary residence equity when calculating a student’s financial need. Thus, if a student comes to Yale’s financial aid office holding a larger scholarship from Harvard, it may be easy to deduce where the calculations diverged.
But just because Yale figures out the reasoning behind a student’s higher scholarship does not mean that Yale has to agree with it, Storlazzi said, and it certainly does not mean that Yale will feel compelled to match it.
“We’ll consider adjusting, and we look for a reason to adjust, but we want to be fair within our own population,” Storlazzi said. “Are there other circumstances that would make it reasonable for Yale not to consider a family’s home equity?”
For instance, Storlazzi said that in the past, Yale has made the decision not to take into account home equity for students on the West Coast, particularly if their family’s income was in no way reflective of the residence equity.
A student from California said Yale’s consideration of home equity initially left him with little aid. His parents bought a beachside house in California almost 40 years ago, back when the price was still low.
“It’s not my parents’ fault that they made a good real estate investment and that the property appreciated over time,” the student said. “That doesn’t mean they could buy the house again out of their current income. I guess they could sell our house and use the money to finance my education, but should Yale really ask them to do that?”
The student was able to negotiate a higher aid package from Yale after receiving a scholarship from another Ivy League college that did not factor in his home value.
Every student interviewed who showed Yale a more generous offer from another Ivy received a subsequent readjustment in their Yale package after conversations with the financial aid office.
This begs the question: why do schools similar in caliber use different formulas to calculate a student’s need? And if the formulas are so different, why is there any sort of matching process in place?
A HISTORY OF PRE-ADJUSTMENT
Until 1991, the need-based estimation formula was the same across the Ivy League, and across other high-cost private schools in the Northeast like MIT. But in addition to using the same formula, the schools’ financial aid offices would also meet regularly to discuss individual applicants who had been accepted into multiple schools in the collective.
The colleges involved were commonly referred to as the “Overlap Group” because they discussed students with overlapping admission to the schools in the group.
“Before we would mail out our admissions letters, the financial aid offices would compare the packages for each student who overlapped, and if there were differences, we would resolve them,” Storlazzi explained. “We would compare all of the awards, get rid of all of the differences, and so when we went out April 1 with our admissions decisions and financial aid decisions, everything was the same.”
He added that even if a student requested a review of their package afterward, the schools in the Overlap Group would not review the student without collaborating, making the process extremely time-consuming.
The Overlap Group solved the matching issue: the packages were matched before they were even offered to the student. According to Storlazzi, this practice allowed students to make their college decisions solely based on the colleges themselves, and not on money.
But in February 1991, the federal government accused Yale and the other seven Ivy League universities of price-fixing. The colleges, alongside 15 other institutions, had been “cooperating on financial aid” for roughly 40 years, a practice that violated federal antitrust laws, according to the Justice Department.
In a May 1991 article in The New York Times titled “Ivy Universities Deny Price-Fixing But Agree to Avoid It in the Future,” then-President of Yale Benno C. Schmidt Jr. described the allegations as “grossly unfair,” with all the schools involved insisting that they were cooperating with students’ best interests in mind.
But to avoid serious repercussions, the schools agreed to stop collaborating altogether. Now they cannot discuss plans, needs analysis formulas or any part of the process with one another.
“And then what we expected to happen, happened,” Storlazzi said. “The formulas have diverged, and awards can be all over the place.”
Now the offices are prohibited from discussing individual cases with one another ― they can only discuss needs analysis in general, Storlazzi said. However, schools can still compare their financial aid awards to other schools, so long as the student and their family freely give the school a copy of the award they received from the other school.
Scholarship readjustment “just happens in a different way for a different reason,” Storlazzi said.
“I’m not talking to Harvard anymore and asking ‘how did you calculate that number,’ and then hearing about what they took into account and doing the same thing at Yale,” he said. “Now we’re doing intelligent guessing.”
In the case of the anonymous rower, Storlazzi guessed that Princeton either did not take their home equity into account, or was more sympathetic to the fact that the rower ― when they were a senior in high school and applying to Yale ― had a sibling one year younger than them who would also be entering college soon. Princeton likely considered the second tuition that the family would be paying each year, and gave them a slightly more generous package ― reasoning with which Yale must have later agreed.
In fact, the rower’s younger sibling is now a junior at another university.
For students like the rower, who did not receive the amount of financial aid they needed from Yale initially, but who were able to negotiate a more generous scholarship before matriculating, the elimination of the Overlap Group was fairly insignificant. The same process is still happening, but the school cannot set it in motion ― a student, their family or perhaps their coach must request a review.
But this system is entirely predicated on the idea that students and their families know readjustment is possible.
FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS
Carter Guensler is a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But when he applied to colleges as a senior in high school, he also got into Duke, where he received a full-ride scholarship. Guensler also received full rides from Rice, Vanderbilt, the University of South Carolina, Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia. Guensler was granted admission to the University of Chicago, which also gave him a partial scholarship. And Guensler got into Yale, which had always been his dream school. But Yale did not offer him a scholarship.
Guensler asked Yale for financial aid, and they told him no. He asked again, and the office told him there “wasn’t really any room to haggle the price down.”
When asked why he didn’t say yes to Yale, the school he had dreamed about attending for years, Guensler was very straightforward: money. He couldn’t afford Yale, and he received merit scholarships at most of the other schools to which he applied.
“When you’re given the choice between paying a quarter of a million dollars that you don’t have and a free college education, it’s no longer a difficult decision for your parents,” Guensler said.
Guensler said he came to the conclusion that going to Yale would not be fair to his family. His sister Kate has special needs, and goes to a private school for students who also suffer from learning disabilities, dyslexia and other disorders, he added.
“Going to The Howard School has helped Kate do incredible things,” Guensler said. “She’s found great success as well as great friends, and I am unbelievably proud of all that she has accomplished there. Paying Yale tuition would mean that my sister couldn’t go there anymore.”
Guensler is happy at UNC, and enjoys a full-ride merit scholarship there. But he said he can’t help but wonder whether Yale would have been more willing to negotiate with him and take into account his family’s extenuating circumstances had he received financial aid from another Ivy.
Maybe Princeton or Harvard would have been more understanding about his sister’s situation, and reflected it in a financial aid package that Yale would have then been eager to match. Guensler said he does not regret going to UNC, a school with incredible people and opportunities, a school that challenges his worldview every day. But he takes issue with Yale’s financial aid process, and the fact that Yale advertises itself as an “affordable” university, when it might only be affordable to the small fraction of students who are successfully able to increase their aid.
Though Storlazzi asserts that Yale does its best to get the word out regarding reviews of financial aid packages, students interviewed were unclear about the process. When 20 students were asked whether they thought it was possible to negotiate financial aid, 12 said yes, but five only thought it could be done if a student had a better scholarship from another college.
There are students like Cruz, who knew from a mentor that he could convince Yale to match Princeton’s scholarship offer of 100 percent financial aid. And then there are the students who did not even request financial aid when applying to Yale out of fear that it would increase their chances of being rejected.
Doolittle and the anonymous rower ― both students in the middle class ― agreed that the system in place disproportionately affects middle class families.
One of the most beneficial components of Yale’s financial aid policy is the “automatic zero” expected contribution for families making under $65,000 a year. This policy, which is fairly unambiguous, allows most of the talented, low-income students who are admitted to come to Yale.
“It’s the students with low-income parents who have high assets, or the families with decent income who are supporting other relatives, who end up getting hurt by the system,” the rower said.
Alex Zhukovsky, the father of a Yale junior, echoed this sentiment.
“Yale’s formula said we could afford paying for [our daughter’s] college, which is slightly ridiculous,” Zhukovsky said. “We wouldn’t be able to pay without mortgaging our future. We knew that Yale had helped our friends, and we were hopeful they would work with us. They eventually did, but we are still paying a lot of money since we don’t want our daughter to live with debt for a good half of her life.”
NAVIGATING AN IMPERFECT SYSTEM
Outside experts interviewed all agreed that despite the ambiguities that exist within Yale’s current system of calculating financial aid, this new system is still much preferable to the days of the Overlap Group.
“The system of voluntarily showing schools’ packages to compare is better for students than the old Overlap Group,” Kelchen said. “The old system did have the plus of making the choice all about nonfinancial aspects but the aid offers may not have been as good.”
Kantrowitz noted that the current system does let colleges compete with one another on price, which would not be the case in an ideal world. But he added that to the extent that colleges start with the same information about a student’s financial background, they will reach similar conclusions about a student’s ability to pay, even if this is after some negotiation.
As long as students are knowledgeable about the nuances of the current system in place, Braden Currey ’17 said, it is a significant improvement to the Overlap Group.
“With the new system, assuming that a student applies to multiple schools in order to compare several financial aid offers, students can take advantage of every metric for evaluating financial need out there,” Currey said. “Any one metric you use to assign it will be inevitably imperfect,” he added. “This system lets students pick the metric that gives them the most aid.”
But this also means that with the current system, students who apply early action to Yale and accept their offer of admission are “giving up all of their leverage in getting a good financial aid package,” said Kantrowitz.
Storlazzi acknowledged the imperfections in the system, but said the financial aid office is constantly working to make Yale affordable for every student.
“The formula isn’t perfect, though it’s an excellent tool,” Storlazzi said. “That’s why we have human beings as financial aid officers.”