At the center of the admissions and financial-aid process is a massive information imbalance: Schools make their decisions with detailed data about each applicant that goes well beyond test scores and transcripts. Many universities have access to comprehensive financial profiles, sometimes down to the type of cars a family drives. Some analyze patterns and interpret even the most subtle indicators from students, such as the order in which schools are listed on the federal financial-aid application, or even how long a student stays on the phone with an admissions officer.
Students are not so lucky. Schools offer comparatively little information about exactly who they’re awarding aid to and for what. College-bound teens and their parents often resort to college forums, sharing their personal “stats” — their financial and academic profiles — with strangers online to get advice on which colleges are likely to be generous with aid. Once they get their financial-aid awards, some even go back to these forums to compare their aid packages in an attempt to reverse engineer colleges’ criteria.
Most colleges offer “vague and superficial” disclosures about how they allocate their financial-aid dollars, said Mark Kantrowitz, a financial-aid expert with Edvisors, which publishes websites about paying for college. “They don’t give details about the actual formulas they use.”