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How to Avoid “Gapping” in College Admissions

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“Gapping” in College Admissions

Gapping is a term used in reference to colleges and financial aid awards. Gapping happens when a college makes an offer of admission and doesn’t back it up with financial aid. Quite simply, the college doesn’t offer enough aid to cover the difference between the cost of the college attendance and your expected family contribution. This often happens if you are at the bottom of the applicant pool (there are other candidates with higher test scores, grades or other application stand-outs).

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If a college offers you admission and decides to gap you, the gap between what the family can afford and what the college offers in financial aid can be tens of thousands of dollars. Colleges do this when they are trying to fill an applicant quota and are gambling that you won’t accept their offer of admission due to the lack of adequate financial aid.

Why Colleges Practice Gapping

Colleges use gapping to meet their acceptance quota without having to award financial aid to applicants they consider to be less than stellar. “You can start by understanding this harsh reality: colleges and universities will almost always reserve their so-called preferential financial aid packages to the students they really want,” says Lynn O’Shaughnessy, an independent college counselor and author of The College Solution blog.

"For example,” Ms. O’Shaughnessy explains, “on its website, Muhlenberg College, a highly regarded liberal arts college in Allentown, PA, shares an unusually candid explanation for preferential packaging. The main take-away is that students who are in the top quarter to third of a school’s freshman class will typically enjoy better financial aid or merit scholarships. Students in the bottom half of the applicant pile are more likely to receive smaller packages including those stuffed simply with loans and a possible work-study job.”

These students are the students who are most likely to be gapped. Most colleges follow this practice. When the university doesn’t produce enough money in the financial aid package to cover the student’s demonstrated financial need, the student is being gapped.

How to Avoid Being Gapped

1. Learn how to interpret financial aid offers. You do this by comparing offers between colleges and determining which college is offering the better deal. In order to do this, you much know your EFC (Expected Family Contribution) and subtract that number from the total cost of attendance. This cost includes tuition, room and board, fees, and other living expenses. An easy way to compare colleges, if the college isn’t using it, is to print out a copy of the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet and plug the numbers into the respective boxes on the sheet. Don’t include loans (parent or student) in the award amounts because they are offered to everyone regardless of need.

2. Research how much aid colleges distribute to students; colleges report this data. You can use the College Board’s website, type in the college name, and see the average aid award along with the percentage of students who receive financial aid. Gapping is more likely to occur at private schools, and schools that are a reach for the student. Some schools promise to meet the full need of students who are accepted, but these schools are also more difficult to get into and are often need sensitive or need aware.

3. Apply to colleges that are a good fit. These colleges will be ones that you are at the top of the applicant pool. You can research the college’s average applicant GPA and test scores to know where you measure up. Colleges that want you will be willing to entice you with larger amounts of financial aid. Colleges that don’t will communicate that by the size of their financial aid package and the presence of gapping.

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Written by Suzanne Shaffer

Suzanne Shaffer counsels parents and students in the college admissions process and the importance of early college preparation. Her Parents Countdown to College Coach blog offers timely college tips for parents and students, as well as providing parents with the resources necessary to help their college-bound teens navigate the college maze.

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