Students are not likely to receive the same amount of financial aid every year. This can be a good thing or a bad thing but too often is a bad thing. Students must apply for financial aid each year and any changes in their families’ circumstances can affect their EFC/SAU and the amount of money awarded. This can be a good thing when a family’s situation changes for the worse and the student receives additional aid to compensate for a lower EFC/SAI. The same would be true if the EFC/SAI remained the same but the cost of attendance increases as it has been known to do.
Front Loading Financial Aid
Unfortunately, students can have the exact same EFC/SAI from year to year but receive less financial aid, or at least, less grant aid. This is referred to as “front loading.” According to Mark Kantrowitz, approximately half of all colleges provide more grants or “gift aid” to students in their freshman year than in the following years. This means that students are likely to be taking out more loans each year as the grant amounts decrease.
You can get an idea if front loading is a concern by visiting College Navigator and comparing the amount of “Grant or Scholarship aid” freshman receive to the average for all undergraduates (This is also available on the DIY College Search Spreadsheet). For Columbia University, you’ll see the freshman average is $57,726 while all undergraduates average $46,156.
The really weird thing is when you check out the “percentage of need met” data collected by the Common Data Set. Look up Columbia at CollegeData.com and go to the Financials option. You’ll see that in 21-22 the Average Percent of Need Met for Freshman was 100% but only 98.5% of freshman had their need fully met. For all undergraduates, again, it lists 100% of Average Percent of Need Met but only 95.6% of undergraduates had their need fully met. These are just some of the inconsistencies you’ll find in the Common Data Set information.
Take a look at Drexel University, a school that doesn’t promise to meet 100% of need, to get an idea of the differences between freshman and undergraduates as a whole. In 21-22 Drexel reported 81% of Average Need Met for Freshman but only 74% for Undergraduates. This meant that only 29.1% of freshman had their need fully met compared to 22.8% of all Undergraduates.
Schools are able to get away with this because students are unlikely to transfer after their freshman year. Transfer students tend to receive even less generous financial aid awards than “native” students. In other words, after the freshman year, the school has a captive audience and doesn’t have to try as hard.
Reasons Why Colleges May Not be Providing as Much Financial Aid
It’s important to keep in mind some of the reason why schools may not award as much financial aid after the freshman year.
Merit Scholarships Requirements
Colleges often award a significant amount of their institutional aid in the form of merit scholarships. These type of scholarships from the school are not dependent on need and are usually renewable for four years at the same amount only if the student maintains a specific GPA and any other eligibility requirements. Such merit scholarships are a recruiting tool to attract students to the campus that might not otherwise attend. However, high GPA requirements make it more likely that students will lose their merit scholarships. It’s easier to keep merit scholarships that only require a 3.0 compared to those that require a 3.5. Students should check with the school if they have any questions concerning the scholarship requirements and any possible grace periods.
Financial Aid Mix
The Federal Direct Student Loan program allows upperclassman to borrow more money than freshman. Since most schools cannot meet 100% of need, much less do so without loans, it’s possible that colleges are substituting federal loan money for their own institutional aid. If a student qualifies for $2,500 more in federal loans, the school decides to offer $2,500 less in institutional aid.
Student Body Composition
One thing that nobody seems to want to talk about is how a change in the student body composition from freshman to the sophomore year can affect the numbers. The fact is that students who qualify for the most financial aid are often those that come with backgrounds putting them the most at risk for dropping out. When these students do drop out, they won’t need institutional aid to continue their studies. Those students who persist are likely to have less need to begin with. To what extent this situation contributes to front-loading is impossible to say since colleges are reluctant to use it as an excuse. It would be a bad look to say that we saved money by not working harder to make sure everyone who we admit graduates.
Changes in Family Status Can Change the Amount of Financial Aid
There are plenty of reasons why students’ financial aid changes from year to year that has nothing to do with the school. If students’ EFC/SAI changes, that can change their financial aid award regardless of which colleges they attend. If your EFC/SAI increases more than the Total Cost of Attendance, then you will be eligible for less financial aid. You can see an extensive listing of reasons of how you can reduce your eligibility for financial aid at Why Did My Student Financial Aid Decrease?
Unfortunately, just because your EFC/SAI increases doesn’t mean that your financial aid award will automatically increase as well. Since most schools don’t meet 100% of need to begin with, some may not automatically adjust students’ financial aid awards upwards as needed. Don’t waste time, appeal your award immediately with the financial aid office. If could be a situation where the squeaky wheel gets the fix. Otherwise, the college may just assume that you would rather stay and pay more than transfer to another institution because your financial aid does the same every year even when it shouldn’t.