What Do Admission Officers Really Know?

Is your university need blind?

I once saw a couple ofย  enthusiastic young admission reps from a pair of Catholic universities back East try to answer that question at a college conference. The reps were specifically asked whether their schools might reject some applicants if they required a lot of financial assistance.

Both admission reps vigorously assured the counselor who asked the question that their institutions would never do such a thing. Both of them bragged that their universities were need blind for admission decisions. In other words, they never, ever took financial need into consideration during the admission selection process.

When Colleges Get Stingy

Of course that sounds good, but what is far more relevant is what these — or any other schools — do when accepted students need financial aid. At most institutions, many students who require aid experience a higher-ed phenomenon called gapping. That’s when the university produces a financial aid package that doesn’t include enough money to cover the student’s demonstrated need.

Sometimes the financial aid gap can be quite large. A $50,000 school, for example, might give a student a financial aid package that includes a $20,000 grant with the rest in loans. In a case like this, the gap is so large it’s scary.

When asked about gapping at their universities, the reps were vague. They didn’t seem familiar with their institutions’ financial aid practices. They did mention that they could be advocates for students who really wanted to attend, but needed more money.

Young College Admission Officers

I think this Q&A exchange illustrates what I consider to be a troubling problem. A lot of admission reps, particularly the young staffers of which there are many in this field, have little to no knowledge of the tough decisions that are being made back at their mother ships by the head honchos in the admission and financial aid offices, who must make tough decisions with finite resources and competing institutional goals.

What Do Admission Officers Know?

At college fairs, these young staffers encourage teenagers by handing out shiny marketing material and telling these kids that the schools gives out lots of money. But try having a candid conversation with one of them about a specific child’s chances for meaningful financial aid. Often they will suggest not worrying about the money at this point in the process.

At the conference, I asked one of the admission rep presenters what percentage of financial aid need that her university typically met. It’s easy enough to find out on the College Board or the school’s Common Data Set. I asked it simply to find out if she knew. And she didn’t. What she did tell me was the range of merit scholarships the school awards. But that isn’t what I asked and that isn’t particularly helpful when you are a 18-year-old kid or a parent and wondering how much college will cost.


I think schools should bring young admission officers into the loop so they can be more realistic with potential students and their parents. I believe, however, that universities benefit from having their enthusiastic young cheerleaders remain fairly clueless.

What do you think?

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of the second edition of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price. And lifelong St. Louis Cardinal fan! Go Cardinals!

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    1. Monica,

      You can contact an admission office and ask for a financial aid preread of an application. Some will accomodate you.

      You should always use the net price calculator and also compare your child’s academic profile with the previous freshman class to get some idea of how valuable the child would be. Some calculators don’t include merit aid — those that use the mediocre federal template.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  1. Living in Alaska, I see a lot of local alums manning tables at the annual College Fair. They can not speak to admissions practices or financial aid policies in depth. Is it better to have some representation at these events – which granted may be lacking in specifics – or no presence at all?

    1. Hi Paula,

      I think any information is better than nothing. Also students have an opportunity to express what the higher-ed world calls “demonstrated interest” in the colleges that are represented.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  2. Through the college research process for two kids, I have had the opportunity to attend a number of college fairs, presentations, seminars. We have run into either very personable, very recent alums of the college with surface knowledge or experienced admission staff with genuinely useful information.
    I agree with your assessment of colleges benefitting from the cheerleader reps… they are young, energetic, and relate to high school students.

  3. Excellent observations, Lynn. Having attended a large college fair with my daughter just this week, I couldn’t agree more! We now tend to focus on other topics when talking with most of the reps and get more of the financial information online. I believe it is hard for less experienced reps to appreciate the array of financial circumstances potentially affecting different families, especially when dealing with CSS/Profile schools, and which can make all the difference in the world as far as college affordability. As far as merit scholarships, it would be useful if more reps could provide information about the type of applicant who would be likely to receive a significant award. A lot of schools offer merit aid, but the trick is identifying “good match” schools where your child really stands a chance of receiving an award that makes it reasonable to attend (a couple thousand dollars is great, but NOT a game-changer).

    1. Ann — Thanks for your comment. I think schools don’t want their young admission reps to know too much.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy