Looking beyond highly rejective colleges to get better deals


As usual, the highly rejective colleges** have attracted the most media attention during this latest admission season.

The Ivies, Stanford, MIT, Duke, Northwestern, USC and other highly rejective colleges outdid themselves this year by crushing the college dreams of an historic number of applicants.

What gets lost in this slavish attention to the nation’s highly rejective schools is the inside scoop on what’s happening with other colleges and universities and how some families can take advantage of this situation now.

2021 college admissions reality

The admission offices at many schools that are still quite popular with ambitious teenagers, but aren’t perched near the top U.S. News & World Report’s rankings, are stressing out because the pandemic caused more of what would normally be their admission pool to aim instead for the highly rejective schools.

Teenagers made this move because the vast majority of colleges, including the U.S. News darlings, did not require SAT or ACT scores due to the unavailability of testing opportunities due to COVID-19.

The free pass on testing led to more students mistakenly believing that they had a real shot at highly rejective schools. This, in turn, led to fewer smart teenagers applying to selective universities with better-than-average name recognition that offered better admission odds.  A small sampling of popular selective institutions that are not in the highly rejective league would include schools like Drexel, Holy Cross, American, George Washington, Fordham and Santa Clara.

A stressful time for college admissions

Many schools across the country are wondering if they are going to attract enough freshmen for the fall. This is most definitely not a new phenomenon, but the pandemic made it crazier this year for enrollment management folks.

Most private and public colleges stress out about filling their slots every year because despite the media hype, a large percentage of institutions haven’t reached their freshmen admission goals by the time the fall semester starts. In this post, however, I’m focusing on universities, mostly located in cities, that generate drawing power but nothing like what the highly rejective schools enjoy.

One reason for this worry among so-called selective second-tier schools (I hate the term “second-tier”) is explained by Mark Salisbury, the founder of TuitionFit, a valuable crowdsourcing platform for financial aid awards.

With so much uncertainty about where students are going to be heading in the fall, I asked Salisbury, who has worked in the higher-ed world for 25 years including as academic administrator and director, what colleges are doing in response.

Mark and I had a conversation about all this in March that I recorded below, but I followed up this week with questions specifically about selective brand name schools. He is in a good position to know since students and parents have uploaded thousands of 2021 award letters to his website and are continuing to do so.

A college admissions take from the founder of TuitionFit

Here is what Salisbury said about this 2021 phenomenon is impacting these popular universities and colleges:

  1. Students who normally would apply to second-tier selectives “shot their shot” with the uber selectives.
  2. As a result, those students didn’t apply to those second tiers at quite the same rate.
  3. Those students got rejected at the uber selectives like they always do.
  4. The second tiers are in the midst of a scramble to get more applications because their admission modeling depends on it.

SO . . . .

Do the second tiers send out bigger aid offers to increase their yield rates from the applications they already have and end up with the number of enrollees they need?


Do they go bigger with soliciting more applications to get to the number of applications they modeled in the hopes that the rest of the model will eventually work out, albeit later in the cycle than it would have normally?

It looks like more than a few institutions are throwing extra money out there in the hopes of getting as many students as possible to deposit by May 1.

Other institutions seem to think that they just need to push their May 1 deposit deadline to July 1 (not a public announcement but rather a mindset in the admissions office).

It’s a giant game of chicken!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So what’s next?

This year more than ever, families should not assume that a college’s first offer is the final one.

Many schools will be open to requests for more money.

Keep in mind that a school that might have not been willing to entertain additional need-based or merit aid in January might be quite willing now if freshmen deposits aren’t coming in as needed.

Also don’t be surprised if a school, without solicitation, contacts your child and offers an extra merit award.

Sometimes schools just make up names of awards at this time of year in an effort to get more teenagers to commit. I know a young woman whose younger brother recently got an extra $10,000 award from Drexel without even asking for it.

Use TuitionFit to see what’s really happening

A creative way to see what awards colleges are offering students is to visit TuitionFit.

TuitionFit is focused on creating college price transparency by empowering students and families to share the financial aid awards they receive and create a Kelley Blue Book of college prices.

If you upload a current award letter (your privacy will be protected), you can see other award letters for free. You’ll be able to see what kind of awards similar students received and also discover other colleges with impressive awards that were never on your radar.

I can’t emphasize enough that at many colleges, it’s not too late to apply and receive financial aid and/or merit scholarships even if the published deadlines are long past.

Highly rejective colleges

**The term highly rejective colleges was coined by Akil Bello, who is an expert on standardized testing and senior director at FairTest, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing standardized testing.

Highly rejective schools are focused on turning away nearly all applicants and primarily educating wealthy students because their coveted status depends on it.

Rather than use their considerable financial might and prestige to expand the number of students they educate on their own campuses or through satellite campuses, they cling to the status quo.

More higher-ed observers, including Jeff Selingo, the former top editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, are using the term highly rejective colleges because that accurately defines what these institutions are all about – exclusive bastions of extreme privilege.






Let's Connect

Leave a Reply

  1. Hi Lynn – I so appreciate your site and your work as I am so overwhelmed by this process. My son with a 4.25 GPA applied to 8 schools (mostly all highly rejective I discover now) and got into two…. University of WA and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He wants to go into computer engineering and chose RPI because UW, although they admitted him as an undergrad, did not admit him into the CS school – yet suggested he come anyway and change his major. RPI expects us to pay $40,000 and we just don’t have the money. I am looking for any information I can get about this school as I’ve never heard of it and am wondering if you know its reputation? I just don’t know if it’s worth paying that much. But I also don’t know if him going to a more affordable school in a major he didn’t choose is worth it either. I’m interested in your thoughts are about this school and our options?

    I’m looking for some guidance / advice / insight and really don’t know who to contact. I was hoping you might have a little guidance?

  2. Lynn, I am so pleased to have been referred to your website ! I have a granddaughter that I am legal guardian for until September 2921 when she turns 18. She was considered independent in FAFSA with an EFC of zero. Her dream school, University of Miami accepted her for Spring 2022. They are the only school that requested my CSS. This past Friday,, 4/23/2021, we received her financial aid package. She received NO institutional aid and only received Pell, supplemental Pell , work study and loans. How can this be correct? We are so disheartened and confused.

    1. Post

      Hi Lise,
      Legal guardianship is a designation by a court that authorizes someone to care for an individual in place of or absence of parents. Having a legal guardian qualifies the person as an independent student, such that you do not have to report your parents’ income on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form.

      Some CSS Profile schools will ask you about your income/assets as the legal guardian. When it comes to the schools money, they can ask you for what ever documentation they want.

      I would obviously appeal the award since your granddaughter would presumably have no assets or income. This could be a way, however for Miami to simply reject your granddaughter’s application by providing no insitutional aid. Ultimately, I would pick a school that does not consider the guardian’s income and assets.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  3. My daughter got into Columbia and several other liberal arts schools as well as the CUNY Macaulay honors program. Columbia made her named scholar but they only offer need based aid. We are both working, renting in New York and have three kids. I have no idea why Columbia thinks we can pay 40k this year and maybe more next year. The girl is totally dreaming of Columbia or Welseyan. I appealed and got 2000 dollars taken off. Do I have any other options?

    1. Post

      Hi Wendy,

      As for getting the price down for Columbia, the only thing I can think of is to appeal the school’s use of home equity. Recently Columbia was assessing home equity, but it limits the use of home equity to two times the family’s income. You could ask Columbia how it assessed your home equity and ask that it disregard it or limit its impact at least.

      The best thing families can do for themselves is to be sure to run a net price calculator before you allow a teenager to apply to any school. Institutions like Columbia, Wesleyan and other highly rejective schools will have good calculators. When using them, parents would see how much these schools are in advance for people with little or no need-based aid eligibility and suggest their children not apply or at least let them know it won’t happen if that is what the price ultimately is.

      I would strongly suggest that going into this kind of debt for an undergrad degree is a huge financial mistake. I think CUNY Macaulay would be an excellent choice. Here is a post that I wrote about a family in a similar position that I hope resonates with you…


      I would like to know what your family ultimately decides to do.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. Hi Lynn–Another excellent and informative blog post! I especially loved the interview with Mark Salisbury. I will definitely sign up with TuitionFit when my son enters his junior year. This is groundbreaking news. Every parent with a student who will attend higher education needs this. I’ve learned so much from this about the 2nd most selective schools–the Patriot league schools. It makes me wish my student was going this year or next year. Anyway, thanks to you both for some of the most useful and insightful news out there in this arena. Your competitors are far behind in what’s important to the parents of college bound students. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    1. Post

      Thanks so much for your kind words, Kris! I greatly appreciate it. Sharing important news with parents with college-bound students beyond the often superficial information you find elsewhere is what motivates me!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy