How Colleges Fight For Top Students : Planet Money Colleges use money to woo top students. It's an effective tactic, but it drives up tuition for everyone else.
NPR logo

How Colleges Fight For Top Students

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
How Colleges Fight For Top Students

How Colleges Fight For Top Students

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


A few months ago, high school seniors around the country were waiting nervously to hear from college admissions offices. Now, college admissions officers are waiting nervously to hear back from students. Are they coming? Or did they pick another school? Jacob Goldstein and Chana Joffe-Walt of our Planet Money team report on two Pennsylvania private colleges that compete with each other for students.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: Two men have driven from Easton, Pennsylvania to Manhattan for 12 potential students. They are Lafayette College admissions officers. They're wearing solid black suits, Lafayette pins on their lapels. And Greg MacDonald tells me they are here with a mission.

GREG MACDONALD: To make them feel that Lafayette is in their future and make them think that they'll ruin their lives if they go elsewhere.


JOFFE-WALT: Lafayette has admitted about 2,300 students. But they only have room for about 600 students. Now, they don't just want any 600 students. MacDonald and his colleague Bob Massa told me they want the right 600.

MACDONALD: I wake up in the middle of the night thinking, you know, do I have enough males? Do I have enough females? Do I have enough engineers? Do I have too many engineers? Do I have enough kids from Long Island? Do I have enough kids from Seattle?

BOB MASSA: Ultimately, our professional success depends on the whims of 17-year-olds and their parents.

MACDONALD: Do you want to see the hives on my arm?


JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: Back at the admissions office on the Lafayette campus, the rest of the staff waits every day for the mail. There are fat envelopes. Those are from students who said yes, I'm coming to Lafayette. And then there are postcards. Those are the rejections from students who decided to go somewhere else. And there's a line on the postcard for students to write in what college they're going to. I talked to Chuck Bachman in Lafayette's admissions office.

Does the football team here have an archrival?

CHUCK BACHMAN: Lehigh University.

GOLDSTEIN: And in the Admissions office, do you have an archrival?

BACHMAN: Lehigh University. Because most students who apply to Lafayette will also apply to Lehigh. Most who visit Lafayette will also visit Lehigh.

GOLDSTEIN: To land the best students, Lafayette sends its top people all over the country to meet with students where they live.

JOFFE-WALT: Lehigh University does that too.

GOLDSTEIN: Lafayette has fancy brochures and videos.

JOFFE-WALT: And Lehigh University does too.

GOLDSTEIN: Those things help. But it costs a lot of money to go to Lafayette.

JOFFE-WALT: And to go to Lehigh.

GOLDSTEIN: The sticker price for both schools is now more than $50,000 a year. So, when Lafayette or Lehigh really wants to land a student, they have one very powerful tool. They offer the student a deal.

JOFFE-WALT: But they don't call it a deal. They call it a merit scholarship.

Bob Massa, the guy I met in New York, says the only reason colleges offer merit scholarships is to compete with each other.

MASSA: Families think that their sons and daughters are awarded a merit scholarship because of the fact that they are wonderfully smart and talented and in fact, that's part of it. But the bottom line is the primary reason for awarding a non-need based merit scholarship is to change a student's enrollment decision from another institution to our institution. That's why colleges do it.

MICHELLE TALLARITA: My mom opened it. I was in gym class in high school.


JOFFE-WALT: This is Michelle Tallarita. We met her in the library at Lafayette.

TALLARITA: My mom opened the letter and she called me and told me I had gotten the Marquis Scholarship. And I was like, oh, and she's like it's a humungous scholarship. And I'm like, well, that's awesome.

JOFFE-WALT: Michelle is a catch. She got an A in that gym class. She said it was her lowest grade all year. Every other class she got an A plus. She was her high school valedictorian. High SAT scores. She is charming, ambitious - she is a 21 year-old who just wrote a novel.

TALLARITA: It's a young adult novel. It's a mystery. It's called "Sasquatch, Barbershops and Other Ways My Freshman Year Was Hairy."

JOFFE-WALT: If you're Bob Massa, you want this kid at your college. Michelle got in almost everywhere she applied. And initially, she leaning towards Villanova, but that Marquis Scholarship changed her mind.

TALLARITA: I was really excited.


TALLARITA: It was exciting to see a scholarship of that size, coming from this, you know, school that when I went to I was like this is ritzy.

JOFFE-WALT: That Marquis Scholarship Michelle got is now $20,000 a year. In other words, $20,000 off the sticker price to get her to come to Lafayette.

GOLDSTEIN: Over the years, the Marquis scholarship has been getting bigger and bigger. Lafayette sees other schools raising their merit scholarships and to compete, Lafayette does the same.

JOFFE-WALT: And they give out a lot of these scholarships. It's a pretty good way to land the best students, but weirdly, these scholarships are one of the things that keeps pushing up the sticker price of college, that big, full-fare number that you always hear about.

GOLDSTEIN: If you hand out discounts to lots of students you have to make up for it somehow. To a large extent, the people making up for it are the students who pay full price.

I'm Jacob Goldstein.

JOFFE-WALT: And I'm Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.



Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.