Higher education is no stranger to the quest for prestige. With the increasing pervasiveness of college and university rankings from publications such as U.S. News and World Report, the public has instant access to what is heralded as the best of the best, be it the best college, the best engineering program, and yes, even the best party school.
Higher education institutions work hard to increase their position within these rankings, knowing that higher-ranked schools attract more applicants. Over the course of the years, one way that institutions have attempted to move up the proverbial rankings ladder is by offering merit aid to students. This can be in the form of scholarships or grants given to students with high test scores, good GPAs, or unique talents in the classroom or the gym. By offering financial aid incentives to these students, colleges and universities help attract highly meritorious students, and in turn, increase their cachet.
However, the rise of merit aid has depleted need-based aid aid budgets. This means that money is taken away from low-income, financially needy students and re-allocated to more meritorious, often higher-income students. One such institution that has engaged in this practice is Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston. As Wentworth’s vice president of finance told Inside Higher Ed: “Historically, the bulk of the aid provided by Wentworth … has been merit-based … all students who apply are automatically considered for academic achievement scholarships.”
Yet, Wentworth Institution of Technology has been forced to change its aid practices. When the institution did not meet its goal of enrolling 1,000 freshmen last fall, Wentworth’s President Zorica Pantic, issued a survey to all admitted students who did not accept Wentworth’s offer in an attempt to illuminate the reason for the declining enrollment. The results were largely financial: Many students noted that they did not enroll because they could not afford the cost of attendance.
While Wentworth’s list price (that is, the cost of attendance before taking into account any type of financial aid, either merit or need-based) for tuition and room and board is below neighboring private institutions at $34,000, the price is still significantly higher than public institutions. This discrepancy has clearly taken a toll on Wentworth’s enrollments; as Inside Higher Ed reports, “the gap between students who were admitted and students who enrolled had been growing for three years, since the recession began.”
With this, the institution has decided to expand its financial aid budget from $20.4 million to $23.7 million, and according to Jamie Kelly, director of public affairs and institutional advancement at Wentworth, “the expansion will be paid for from a surplus in the operating budget that came about when the school adjusted enrollment projections—and, accordingly, its budget—after the freshman shortfall first became apparent.” The majority of this increase will go to need-based aid. Currently, 1,000 students receive such aid; Wentworth hopes to double this number by 2012.
With the recession officially behind us, it will be interesting to see if Wentworth stays committed to its new need-based financial aid policy, or if returning levels of enrollment will be coupled with a switch back to merit-based aid in order to secure its position in the rankings game.