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Affluence can pay on college wait-list

Wealthy often get inside track

LOS ANGELES -- Many high school seniors dangling on college waiting lists and still hoping to land fall-term openings at their top-choice schools will instead get a lesson in real-world economics: It pays to be rich.

Selective private colleges acknowledge that they sometimes take affluent teens over those from poor or middle-class families needing financial aid when deciding which students to admit from their waiting lists.

The reason, college administrators say, is that financial aid budgets often have been tapped out by the time these admissions are decided in May and June.

The money has been allocated to students admitted earlier whom the schools most wanted to attract, rather than the backup choices typically relegated to the waiting list.

''It's the financial reality of things," said Paul Marthers, dean of admission at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

At Reed, where officials take pride in providing full aid packages to needy students, ''Every year we have to decide, 'Can we give financial aid to students on the waiting list?' " Marthers said. Often by that point, ''The financial aid is just used up."

The practice of passing over financially needy students, little known outside the admissions field, troubles Alex Lee, 18, a high school senior from Los Angeles.

He was accepted this spring at several other highly regarded colleges but remains keen on Reed, where he is on the waiting list.

Lee narrowly missed being accepted during Reed's regular application review period in March. Even so, when Reed made admissions offers in recent days to an initial group of about 15 waiting-list students, it skipped over Lee again.

One of the main reasons, Marthers said, is that Lee needs financial aid that Reed isn't sure it can provide.

Lee keeps hoping, though, that Reed will find a way to take him before its waiting-list process ends late next month.

Even if Lee gets his wish, many others like him across the country won't get theirs, according to Michael S. McPherson, a higher education economist and former president of Macalester College in Minnesota. ''The way wait lists are handled gives an advantage to students from affluent families," he said.

Some of the financially needy students simply don't get chosen.

Others are offered admission but, in effect, are discouraged from enrolling because the schools provide too little, or no, financial aid.

McPherson said those results are common at all but perhaps the 40 richest of the nation's 1,700 private, four-year schools. He said many of the schools snub financially needy students even earlier in the admissions cycle but that the practice spreads to more campuses during the waiting-list season.

And even the richest schools, including Stanford, the University of Southern California, and the California Institute of Technology, limit admissions of foreign undergraduates who can't pay their way.

Rising competitive and economic pressures, some experts say, have pushed more private colleges in recent years to either take a student's ability to pay into account in admissions decisions or skimp on financial aid for low- or moderate-income students. The most gifted low-income students continue to be admitted to leading private schools and receive substantial aid packages. But in recent interviews, some of these selective schools conceded that economic considerations can come into play after they pick their top-choice applicants, particularly as they review waiting-list students.

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