Planet Money
3:20 am
Wed May 2, 2012

How Colleges Fight For Top Students

Originally published on Wed May 2, 2012 3:56 pm

It's a gray April evening, and two men have driven from Easton, Pa., to Manhattan. The men are administrators at Lafayette College. They're wearing solid black suits with Lafayette pins on their lapels.

They're here to see 12 students — high school seniors who have been admitted to Lafayette and are trying to decide where to go to college.

The men have come to make the students "feel that Lafayette is in their future and make them think that they'll ruin their lives if they go elsewhere," says Greg MacDonald, Lafayette's dean of admissions.

MacDonald laughs as he says this. He's kidding. Mostly.

April is a harrowing month for admissions officers around the country. In the same way that college students wait through the winter to hear back from the schools they applied to, admissions officers wait through April to hear back from the students they admitted. Which students choose their school? Which students decided to go somewhere else?

Lafayette has admitted about 2300 students. Most of those students will choose to go elsewhere; Lafayette's entering class will have just over 600 students. MacDonald and his colleagues want it to be the right 600 students.

"I wake up in the middle of the night thinking do I have enough males, do I have enough females, do I have enough engineers, do I have too many engineers, do I have enough kids from Long Island, do I have enough kids from Seattle?" MacDonald says.

Back at the the admissions office on the Lafayette campus, the staff waits every day for the mail. Students who choose Lafayette, send fat envelopes to the office. Those who chose to go somewhere else send postcards. There's a line on the postcard for students to write in what college they're going to.

In the same way that students are competing with other students when they apply to Lafayette, Lafayette is competing against other colleges to lure top students to Lafayette.

That's why the school's admissions officers visit students around the country. It's why they develop fancy recruiting materials.

Those things help. But it costs a lot to go to Lafayette; the sticker price is now more than $50,000 a year. So, when Lafayette really wants to land a student, it has one especially powerful tool: money.

Of course, they're a bit more classy about it than that. They don't just call it money. They call it a merit scholarship.

"Families think their sons and daughters are awarded a merit scholarship because of the fact that they are wonderfully smart and talented," says Robert Massa, a vice president at Lafayette. "[T]he primary reason for awarding a non-need-based merit scholarship is to change a student's enrollment decision from another institution to our institution. That's why colleges do it."

Not surprisingly, money makes a difference.

Michele Tallarita was at the top of her high school class. She was planning to go to Villanova until Lafayette offered her its big "Marquis Scholarship," now worth $20,000 a year.

"My mom opened the letter and she called me and told me I got the Marquis scholarship," Tallarita says. "And she was like, 'It's a humongous scholarship!'"

The scholarship convinced Tallarita to go to Lafayette.

Over the years, the Marquis scholarship has gotten bigger and bigger. Lafayette sees other schools raising their merit scholarships and, to compete, Lafayette does the same.

And the school gives out a lot of these scholarships. It's a great way to land the best students. On top of that, the school gives need-based grants to many students. A majority of students get grants of some kind — fewer than 50 percent actually pay the full sticker price.

But, weirdly, all those grants are one of the things that keeps pushing up the sticker price at Lafayette and other colleges — that big, full-fare number that you always hear about.

If you give discounts to lots of students you have to make up for it somehow. To a large extent, the people making up for it are the students who pay full price.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A few months ago, high school seniors around the country were waiting nervously to hear from college admissions offices. Now, college admissions officers are waiting nervously to hear back from students. Are they coming? Or did they pick another school? Jacob Goldstein and Chana Joffe-Walt of our Planet Money team report on two Pennsylvania private colleges that compete with each other for students.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: Two men have driven from Easton, Pennsylvania to Manhattan for 12 potential students. They are Lafayette College admissions officers. They're wearing solid black suits, Lafayette pins on their lapels. And Greg MacDonald tells me they are here with a mission.

GREG MACDONALD: To make them feel that Lafayette is in their future and make them think that they'll ruin their lives if they go elsewhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOFFE-WALT: Lafayette has admitted about 2,300 students. But they only have room for about 600 students. Now, they don't just want any 600 students. MacDonald and his colleague Bob Massa told me they want the right 600.

MACDONALD: I wake up in the middle of the night thinking, you know, do I have enough males? Do I have enough females? Do I have enough engineers? Do I have too many engineers? Do I have enough kids from Long Island? Do I have enough kids from Seattle?

BOB MASSA: Ultimately, our professional success depends on the whims of 17-year-olds and their parents.

MACDONALD: Do you want to see the hives on my arm?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: Back at the admissions office on the Lafayette campus, the rest of the staff waits every day for the mail. There are fat envelopes. Those are from students who said yes, I'm coming to Lafayette. And then there are postcards. Those are the rejections from students who decided to go somewhere else. And there's a line on the postcard for students to write in what college they're going to. I talked to Chuck Bachman in Lafayette's admissions office.

Does the football team here have an archrival?

CHUCK BACHMAN: Lehigh University.

GOLDSTEIN: And in the Admissions office, do you have an archrival?

BACHMAN: Lehigh University. Because most students who apply to Lafayette will also apply to Lehigh. Most who visit Lafayette will also visit Lehigh.

GOLDSTEIN: To land the best students, Lafayette sends its top people all over the country to meet with students where they live.

JOFFE-WALT: Lehigh University does that too.

GOLDSTEIN: Lafayette has fancy brochures and videos.

JOFFE-WALT: And Lehigh University does too.

GOLDSTEIN: Those things help. But it costs a lot of money to go to Lafayette.

JOFFE-WALT: And to go to Lehigh.

GOLDSTEIN: The sticker price for both schools is now more than $50,000 a year. So, when Lafayette or Lehigh really wants to land a student, they have one very powerful tool. They offer the student a deal.

JOFFE-WALT: But they don't call it a deal. They call it a merit scholarship.

Bob Massa, the guy I met in New York, says the only reason colleges offer merit scholarships is to compete with each other.

MASSA: Families think that their sons and daughters are awarded a merit scholarship because of the fact that they are wonderfully smart and talented and in fact, that's part of it. But the bottom line is the primary reason for awarding a non-need based merit scholarship is to change a student's enrollment decision from another institution to our institution. That's why colleges do it.

MICHELLE TALLARITA: My mom opened it. I was in gym class in high school.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JOFFE-WALT: This is Michelle Tallarita. We met her in the library at Lafayette.

TALLARITA: My mom opened the letter and she called me and told me I had gotten the Marquis Scholarship. And I was like, oh, and she's like it's a humungous scholarship. And I'm like, well, that's awesome.

JOFFE-WALT: Michelle is a catch. She got an A in that gym class. She said it was her lowest grade all year. Every other class she got an A plus. She was her high school valedictorian. High SAT scores. She is charming, ambitious - she is a 21 year-old who just wrote a novel.

TALLARITA: It's a young adult novel. It's a mystery. It's called "Sasquatch, Barbershops and Other Ways My Freshman Year Was Hairy."

JOFFE-WALT: If you're Bob Massa, you want this kid at your college. Michelle got in almost everywhere she applied. And initially, she leaning towards Villanova, but that Marquis Scholarship changed her mind.

TALLARITA: I was really excited.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TALLARITA: It was exciting to see a scholarship of that size, coming from this, you know, school that when I went to I was like this is ritzy.

JOFFE-WALT: That Marquis Scholarship Michelle got is now $20,000 a year. In other words, $20,000 off the sticker price to get her to come to Lafayette.

GOLDSTEIN: Over the years, the Marquis scholarship has been getting bigger and bigger. Lafayette sees other schools raising their merit scholarships and to compete, Lafayette does the same.

JOFFE-WALT: And they give out a lot of these scholarships. It's a pretty good way to land the best students, but weirdly, these scholarships are one of the things that keeps pushing up the sticker price of college, that big, full-fare number that you always hear about.

GOLDSTEIN: If you hand out discounts to lots of students you have to make up for it somehow. To a large extent, the people making up for it are the students who pay full price.

I'm Jacob Goldstein.

JOFFE-WALT: And I'm Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.