by Jeff Kurtzman, McCallie School Director of College Guidance
These aggregate scholarship figures disguise the authentic amount of money students can actually use, the average amount available to each student individually and the real value of the scholarships being counted.
Every school year, usually in May, many schools publish dollar figures like these to represent the amount of college scholarship money earned by their senior class. Unfortunately, these numbers are misleading at best and disingenuous at worst. Why? Well, there are many reasons, but here are three main ones.
Most egregiously, these numbers are drastically inflated in terms of real-life, usable money because they count all the scholarships each student earned, not the one he or she actually used at the college of their choice. That’s like someone claiming he earns $100,000 a year because he makes $60,000 at work and turned down another job that would have paid $40,000. But, we aren’t just talking about double-counting. These figures use many-times-over-counting. If a student applied to 10 colleges, he could have earned scholarships at all of them, but he can still only use one.
Second, some high schools claim, through the methods described above, that individual students, earned over a million dollars in scholarship. Not only can those students not use it all, but if a handful of students are earning over a million dollars each, suddenly there’s not much left of that 8 or 10 or 13 million dollars left for the rest of the class. These overall totals certainly provide an inaccurate picture of what each individual student can hope to earn in scholarship dollars.
Third, any parent of high school juniors or seniors knows that colleges love to deluge your family with scholarship offers. You receive mailings saying “You’ve qualified for a $5,000 scholarship!” And your son or daughter will say, “What did I do?” and “But, I’ve never even heard of this school!” That’s because, in some cases, this isn’t a $5,000 scholarship, it’s a $35,000 bill for the rest of tuition and room and board! A scholarship is only valuable in the context of the total cost of attendance and at a university that a student actually wants to attend.
So, these aggregate scholarship figures disguise the authentic amount of money students can actually use, the average amount available to each student individually and the real value of the scholarships being counted. As a result, they do a great disservice to parents by giving a false sense of security, raising unrealistic expectations and delaying understanding of an accurate financial aid picture for each family.
At McCallie, our college guidance office takes a different approach. We know that each individual family faces a unique financial situation, which no collective scholarship number can hope to represent. We take the time to get to know each family’s specific needs, so that we can help them find the assistance they require.
Generally, that falls into three categories. First, there are families that qualify for substantial need-based aid. Fully twenty percent of McCallie’s seniors were accepted to institutions that guarantee to meet all students’ full financial need, even though there are only 46 such universities nationwide.
Next there are families that don’t qualify for much need-based aid, but for whom $50,000 per year is just not affordable. Through our experience, we can help McCallie students find and gain acceptance to schools they really like and that also provide substantial merit-based aid. For example, we’ll recommend a student who is interested in Vanderbilt, which doesn’t do much with merit aid, take a look at Tulane, a similar institution that has a history offering generous merit scholarships to deserving students. Fifty-six percent of McCallie’s senior class will attend college on a merit-based scholarship next year, and many more earned such scholarships, but turned them down to attend other schools.
Finally, many families would really like their sons to take advantage of the lottery scholarships offered by their home states, such as the HOPE scholarships in Tennessee and Georgia. These valuable programs can earn up to full tuition at public universities or be applied toward a portion of the cost at in-state private universities. Over ninety percent of the Tennessee and Georgia residents in this year’s senior class graduates as HOPE-eligible.
By focusing on each individual family’s needs and each individual student’s qualifications and goals, we are offering an accurate and helpful approach that actually helps families figure out the complicated process of paying for the right college for their son. In the end, that’s something an impressive-sounding, but ultimately meaningless and misleading number can never do.