Access vs. Affordability

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TommyAdamsTommy Adams is the current Assistant Head of School for Enrollment at Mercersburg Academy (PA) and has been working in independent school admission for the past 20 years. A graduate of Avon Old Farms in Connecticut and the son of a former head of school, Tommy received his bachelor’s degree from Roanoke College in Virginia as well as a master’s of science in Education with a focus on Educational Leadership from the University of Pennsylvania. Tommy has been a regular presenter at national events, such as TABS and SSATB, is a current member of the ASSIST School Retention Task Force, serves on Mercersburg’s Accreditation for Growth Planning Committee and is
a long time Fellow at The Essex Institute.

Financial aid has become the most challenging part of my job as an enrollment manager. As Leo Marshall states in the March 14 New York Times piece “For Boarding Schools, an Evolving Financial Aid Philosophy,” it is frustrating not having the ability to award aid to more families who truly qualify. Financial aid is now not only about providing financially needy families access to our education, it is also about assisting families who are able to pay a portion of the tuition. Unfortunately, the gap between what many families believe they can pay and the Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) is growing exponentially.

I want to believe that the economic crash of 2008 has changed the spending habits of the families who are exploring independent school options for their children, but unfortunately, in many instances, this does not seem to be the case. Many families that we see coming through the admission process seem unwilling to change their lavish lifestyles. I am dumbfounded by the families who spend a substantial amount of money on sports camps, vacations and club memberships and then are surprised that they either do not quality for financial aid or are dissatisfied with the award that they are offered. Then there are the families who use the “I have to pay for college” line to justify asking for financial assistance. For some reason these families feel that we should be subsidizing their child’s or children’s college education.

We recently received a call from an alum, who is paying the full tuition for his son to go to a private college, and was disappointed that we did not offer his daughter a full ride to come to our school. He was not willing to either ask for financial assistance from his son’s college or even consider taking out a student loan for him. Of course, he was unhappy to hear that we were unlikely to increase our initial financial aid award to his daughter. Many families believe that our schools would be lucky to have their child as a part of our communities, so unfortunately there can be a “show me the money” mentality. It seems the expectations of this generation of parents is different from past eras; many families seem to feel that their children are entitled not only to offers of admission, but also to some kind of financial assistance, regardless of their demonstrated need.

I believe that issues of affordability are only going to continue to escalate. Our tuition will continue to increase and thus we become less affordable to many. Additionally, the more money that we award to middle or higher income families will mean less to award to low income families. It is important not to forget that there is a rather large business aspect to what we do. Admission offices are not only responsible for maintaining or improving the quality of the student body, but also for bringing in the largest portion of our school’s revenue base. It is disappointing to have more conversations with ACCESS student programs about our inability to aid more of their students, but we have no choice if we want to remain financially sustainable.

Below are some questions to think about:

Why is paying for college more important than paying for an independent school education?

How can we do a better job of defining the value of an independent school education to prospective families?

Are we trying to accomplish too much with our financial aid budgets? Have you set goals for allocating aid?

Do we need to rethink how we articulate our financial aid policies and guidelines?

For admission offices, are merit scholarships a blessing or a curse?

Do you have someone in your office whose primary job is to evaluate financial aid applications?

Is the School and Student Services (SSS) formula for determining a family’s financial need sustainable?

Is anybody paying attention to the country’s changing demographics?

Have you calculated what your tuition will be in 2020 and beyond? Is our current financial model sustainable?

These are questions that will be posed at this summer’s Essex Institute (www.theessexinstitute.com). Hope to see you there.

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