A New ‘Poor Students Need Not Apply’ Policy at College?

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The retailer’s favorite customer isn’t the bargain hunter who purchases goods on sale, but the shopper who happily pays full price. Same goes for colleges nowadays. Many American universities admit that they are actively trying to recruit students who don’t need financial aid and will pay full, non-discounted tuition. Sometimes, these students aren’t as qualified as other applicants, but they get in anyway because they’re willing to pay up.

In a new survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed, more than half of admissions officers at public research universities (ones with master’s and doctoral programs) say that recruiting “full-pay” students is a higher priority than figuring out ways to provide financial aid to low-income applicants. Admissions directors are also pushing for more out-of-state and international students, who both tend to pay more—sometimes a lot more—for their educations than do the locals.

Perhaps most disturbing of all, in some instances colleges are factoring in one’s ability to pay, and pay in full, into the decision over whether the student is admitted. The report announcing the survey results notes:

The interest in full-pay students is so strong that 10 percent of four-year colleges report that the full-pay students they are admitting have lower grades and test scores than do other admitted applicants.

So now universities are judging applicants not only on SAT scores, high school grades, and application essays and recommendations, but on one’s (or one’s family’s) financial portfolio.

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As the New York Times notes, there are plenty of other factors that influence the admissions process, and that some view as totally unfair:

The admissions officers said they admitted minority students, athletes, veterans, children of alumni, international students and, for the sake of gender balance, men, with lesser credentials, too.

Last year, data indicated that the average student got a 33% discount off tuition due to scholarships, financial aid, and the like. In 2000, by contrast, when tuition cost much less, the average discount amounted to 28.6% off the full “sticker” price.

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But based on the recent survey responses of college admissions officers, this trend for more heavily discounted tuition is going to reverse itself. In the short run, it’s a smart business move for colleges to admit more wealthy students whose daddies will cover their tab in full.

Whether it’s fair or not to admit less-qualified applicants is a different issue, and whether doing so will ultimately damage the university’s reputation and value in the marketplace remains to be seen.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.