Are You Being Lured to a College You Can't Afford?

It may be the hard facts of life, but schools need two things to survive – an influx of students and a lot of money. Most colleges want their students to succeed, but some of their tactics to gain revenue end up hurting the very students they are trying to help.

To make sure you get the financial and academic support you need all four or more years of y our education, don't fall for any of these tactics.

Don't be fulled by deceptive college financial aid practices that will make your degree even more expensive.

Don't be fulled by deceptive college financial aid practices that will make your degree even more expensive.

Front Loading

To reach a full audience, schools will sometimes make the first or second year of college very attractive from a financial perspective – we refer this to as ‘front-loading’ the financial aid package.

Unfortunately for students, the schools don’t announce they are front-loading the financial package to favor the first few years of school. This comes as a surprise to students and parents who thought they had the support they needed to obtain a degree. After the student finishes freshman and sophomore year, the student loses grants and scholarships they relied on and ends up assuming more debt than they had originally planned. 

This forces students and parents to make a heavy decision – continue school going deep into debt or drop out or transfer to a cheaper school. In any of these cases, students lose.

Why do schools front-load their financial aid packages? Schools do this as a type of recruiting tool – by offering strong discounts the first few years of college, they can make the college appear more attractive to prospective students. When students and parents are evaluating a school, financial aid is a critical component. Why attend school ‘x’ if school ‘y’ is offering a huge discount and scholarships?


Another controversial practice is known as “gapping”, which is more common in so-called "need-blind" institutions. A college will admit a student but give them a lowball financial aid package knowing full well that the student won’t be able to pay to attend. The intent is to discourage them from coming to the school. However, some students don't get the message and end up taking on a huge amount of loans.

Over half of admissions directors admit to gapping at their school. This is especially true at private institutions. The goal with gapping is to admit the wealthiest applicants while weeding out students with less money while still appearing to admit a diverse set of students.

What can we do about it?

So what can you do about gapping and front-loading? There’s no hard and fast rule and there are no laws or regulations to force schools to tell you what they are doing. Here are some pointers on what to look out for in hopes of avoiding these situations.

Talk to the admissions department.

Be up front and ask that they do the same – can they tell you what your financial aid will look like in your junior or senior year? Keep in mind they may not tell you or they may not necessarily tell you the truth, but it’s a good place to start.

Take note of whether the school is private, public, need-blind or need aware.

ronically, the schools most guilty of "gapping" tend to be need-blind. It is also more common in private schools. 

Check the data. 

There are a few crucial pieces of data you want to look at for any school you are considering.

  • Freshman retention rate. A school who has a lot of students not returning for their sophomore could indicate that freshmen are not receiving the support they need to continue their education, financially or otherwise.
  • On-time graduation rate and overall graduation rates. Even though most students and parents expect that a bachelor's degree will take four years to complete, the reality is that many students take five years or more. The college's overall graduation rate is based on six years, so make sure you ask for their four-year, or on-time graduation rate as well. The longer you spend in school, the more money you'll spend.
  • Financial aid stats. To see how many overall students get financial aid, vs. just freshmen, visit the school's College Factual profile and go to the Financial Aid tab. For example, take the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. You can see that 54% of freshman receive scholarships, but just 50% of all undergraduates receive scholarships.
  • Calculate Net Price. You can also see an estimate of what you could be expected to pay based on your location and family income. Calculate your net price for Northwestern University.
  • Use Cost Cutter to Evaluate Offers.  College Factual's Cost Cutter will help you analyze hidden costs, estimate several years worth of expenses, and compare financial aid offers.

Get started finding the right college and major for you at the right price!