How to Predict Merit Aid in a Strange College Application Season

While families are the theoretical winners of the annual merit aid derby, it also has losers and — perhaps — victims. Merit aid is partly an act of competition that one school pursues to the detriment of another, which then needs to fill spots some other way. It’s just business, or something like it.

But merit discounts also raise questions of equity. The good grades from rigorous high schools and high test scores that make admissions officers salivate often result from the kind of parental attention that is generally easier for the affluent.

However, if too many parents won’t pay the list price, less selective schools like the Connecticut Colleges and the Oberlins have to discount somehow, even if the Yales and the Northwesterns, which are a bit higher up the competitive food chain, do not. Then, hopefully, they solve for the equity piece by offering need-based scholarships, too.

This year, test scores are in play. Every applicant seeking merit aid has to weigh the question: If I can’t find a testing center or my health is at risk if I sit in one, could the lack of a score cost me thousands in lost discounts?

The best way for colleges to assuage those concerns is to adopt a “test blind” policy that doesn’t examine scores, either for admission or for merit aid (unless required by state-based scholarships or athletic rules). Loyola University of New Orleans is doing that now.

“Like most institutions, we understood that G.P.A.s are a better and more fair predictor of success,” Tania Tetlow, Loyola’s president, said. “At a moment when students literally couldn’t take the standardized tests, it felt like the right moment to be brave and make a change.”

By contrast, the University of Alabama, which has been especially aggressive with merit aid, still requires test scores. The school will allow students to apply for conditional admission if they submit a score by May 1. A spokesman declined to comment beyond the university’s description of its policies on its website.

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