Beware of Preferential Packaging

Many students who apply to college end up being disappointed at what’s wrapped up inside their financial aid packages.

There is a way, however, to reduce the chances that this will happen to you. Be realistic in the schools you target.

Here’s the key reason why:

Colleges and universities possess a finite amount of money for financial aid. Most schools can’t give handsome financial aid or merit aid to all the members of their incoming freshman class. Unfortunately, most families have no idea that this happens routinely.

The Realities of Preferential Packaging

Since funds are limited, colleges typically reserve their so-called preferential financial aid packages to the students they really want. If you read marketing materials from colleges, however, you usually won’t get the sense that financial aid is heavily determined by a college’s excitement or lack of enthusiasm for an applicant. Financial aid realities are a topic that admission officers rarely broach with families.

In nearly all cases, a student with a 4.0 GPA and commensurate test scores is going to receive a better award than one who has a 3.6 GPA or a 2.9 GPA.

I have a rare chance to actually show you the impact that a child’s academic achievements can have on financial aid packages thanks to a spreadsheet that my friend Paula Bishop, a financial aid expert and a CPA in Bellevue, WA, shared with me.

Being the the Pacific Northwest, she has had lots of clients apply to the University of Portland and she showed me how grade point averages have impacted the awards. As you can see from the illustration, the applicants with the highest GPA’s received better deals. Take a look….

University of Portland Aid Awards

To make sense of this illustration, first look at the GPA for each of the four applicants at the bottom of each column. The students with the highest GPA (3.99) received the best treatment. The Catholic university met 92% of this applicant’s financial need. The lower the GPA, the less generous the school was.

The student with the weakest GPA (3.5) in this spreadsheet only got 41% of his/her financial need met and 40% of the award was in loans and work study.  This is true even though the student needed a lot of money to attend this school. The student’s Expected Family Contribution was $14,072, but the cost of attending the University of Portland was $47,460.

One way you can get a sense of where you stand compared to other teenagers applying to a school is to look at the academic profile of the most recent freshman class.  You can find those from such sources as the popular Fiske and Princeton Review guides, through the federal College Navigator and the College Board. I pulled the following snapshot from the College Board:

Academic Freshman Profile at the University of Portland

Even though you can’t pinpoint the exact numbers, you can see that many students who attend Portland have a GPA above 3.5 and are also in the top 10th of their graduating high school class. So a child applying with a 3.5 GPA would have a lot of competition for awards.

Applying Strategically

How can you use this knowledge about preferential packaging to your advantage?

I’d suggest that you read a candid explanation about preferential packaging from Muhlenberg College, a lovely liberal arts college in Allentown, Pa.. Muhlenberg is a rare institution that is actually candid with families about how colleges parcel out financial aid. Here is an excerpt from The Real Deal About Financial Aid, posted on the college’s website:

Read More:

What Financial Aid Can a 3.0 Student Get?

What’s Missing From the Financial Aid Letter?

Order a copy of The College Solution

You can now pre-order the second edition of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price. The second edition contains about 90% new content including chapters on evaluating schools financially and academically.



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  1. Lynn,

    Another way of looking at the data, though, is the cash amount of the grants. The 3.99 student received had the highest percent of need met ($17.093 in grants if my calculations of EFC * % need met * % grants), but also the lowest amount of need. The other three students had much higher need and in fact the 3.9 GPA student, whose EFC was much less, received $21,839.

    Very interesting discussion; I’ve bought both your book and the E-book and recommended them to many friends. My older child is a HS junior, so I’m tracking your blog closely!


    1. Interesting observation Lynne. You could be on to something!

      Thanks so much for spending time on my blog and buying my book (hope it’s the second edition that’s coming out in late May) and my workbook. And I appreciate you spreading the world about them.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  2. Lynn,
    In my daughter’s case, we were hoping for preferential packaging to find an affordable college for a top student with high financial need. She applied to three top Midwestern LAC’s featured in All three colleges awarded her their top academic scholarships and other awards for leadership and honors programs but no more. Each college met less than 75% of our need putting them far out of our financial reach. My daughter is heartbroken and feels her hard work has been for naught. And the truth is she would have gotten the same package from these colleges had she been a B student – it would have just been packaged differently as need-based aid instead of merit awards.

    1. Hi Debbie,

      Sorry to hear about your daughter’s experience. I would not have trusted the list that you sent via the link. There are some generous schools on the list and others that are terrible with financial aid. I’m curious what schools did your daughter apply to?

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy