Johns Hopkins Magazine -- September 1998
Johns Hopkins 
     Magazine Home



Student aid
Financial aid
Paying for college
Saving for college
Parents who save

T U I T I O N    S P E C I A L    R E P O R T

Financial Aid at Hopkins:
"You Can't Negotiate"

Each year, as prospective college freshmen sit sweating over their college applications, their parents struggle over their own set of applications: for financial aid.

To take the mystery out of the financial aid process at Hopkins, we asked Ellen Frishberg, director of Student Financial Services, to take us on a quick walk through the decision-making thicket she faces in deciding just how much each family can afford.

While some schools figure out which students to admit and then give out aid to satisfy their financial need, Hopkins has a fixed amount of grant aid available, with very little playing room. "We work off a rationing formula rather than a giving formula," says Frishberg. For example, she had $5.6 million in aid available for this year's freshmen.

To determine just how much parents can be expected to contribute, Frishberg looks at their income (taxable and untaxable), savings, investments, and the value of their home and other real estate. She counts on parents contributing 4 to 5 percent of these assets after the first $40,000 or so (the amount of this exemption varies depending on the age of the oldest parent and whether or not the parents have another child in college or graduate school). Students are also expected to contribute 35 percent of their personal savings or other assets. A student's financial need is thus the total cost of a year at Hopkins minus the parent/student contribution.

In the meantime, Hopkins admissions officers begin reviewing the files of prospective freshmen and selecting applicants they would like to admit, ranking each as "A," "B," or "C," from most to least desirable. Last year they sorted through 8,578 applications. Two-thirds of those applicants applied for financial aid.

For Admissions director Paul White and his staff, who mail out three letters of acceptance for each available spot, the process is a bit like educated gambling. Extend too many offers and the class will be over-enrolled, thus requiring more financial aid than is available. White and his staff rely in part on a mathematical regression model; it factors in known probabilities that a particular applicant will accept. Potential engineering majors, for instance, are more likely than prospective humanities majors to enroll.

About three-quarters of the way through the admissions process, White sends over to Financial Services the names of applicants being considered for admission. Frishberg et al then set out to allocate the available aid, awarding more grant money and fewer loans to the more desirable "high profile" students, in a process called "preferential packaging." (Freshmen who receive a Hopkins grant collect an average of $15,010.) The next step: tallying up the total cost of financial aid that the prospective class would require.

Inevitably, the total need exceeds the amount of available aid. There are two options, explains Frishberg: reduce or eliminate the financial aid awards of some students, or withdraw certain students from the pool of applicants. "It's not a pretty game," she says.

At Hopkins, the Admissions process is not entirely "need blind"; admissions officers do consider the financial need of some applicants in deciding whether to admit them. But those affected represent only a fraction of applicants--those who are "on the margin," says Bob Massa, dean of Enrollment Services. He estimates that each year, between 200 to 400 applicants "are not admitted, where one factor is their need for aid." (Hopkins also admits another 200 to 400 students but does not meet their financial need--a process known as "admit-deny.") Says Massa, "I know that for the most part we are need-blind. We're not saying, 'Let's take the good students without a lot of money and replace them with less good students who have more money.'"

Last spring, White and Frishberg held their breath after sending out about 3,350 acceptance letters, along with offers of financial aid that included $14.7 million in Hopkins grants.

Soon after, Frishberg's phone began ringing off the hook. "The popular media has essentially told families that the first offer they get is just a first offer," she says. "There's an entitlement mentality: 'They're smart, bright, talented, and therefore should have the right to pick where they go to school, even if we can't afford to pay.'"

For some schools, that holds true. Carnegie Mellon University, for example, states on its financial aid letters that it will attempt to match any offer of financial aid. But when parents call Frishberg hoping to bargain, she avers that Hopkins's financial aid decisions are formula-based. "I say that we sell Saturns. You can't negotiate."

To the relief of both Frishberg and White, their educated gamble paid off. When the final tally was in, 995 students accepted the university's invitation to enroll. And the need of those eligible for Hopkins grants (38 percent of the class) did not exceed the $5.6 million available. Overall, half the incoming class received some form of financial aid, including $1.5 million in subsidized, low-interest federal loans; $700,000 in work study; $270,000 in scholarships; and $200,000 in federal grants.