The New York Times: "Financial aid is no longer just about what you earn and what you have. It’s also about your children and what they do — and that means that good grades can be worth a whole lot of money ... It goes by the name merit aid, and it’s not the same as the more limited academic scholarships of a generation ago. Now, admissions officers often report to bosses with the words 'enrollment management' in their titles, and they can spread the money around much more broadly ... It’s not a scholarship as much as it is a coupon in many cases, one whose value may depend on applicants’ traits ranging from their ZIP code (which can signal affluence) to how quickly they open an email invitation."
"But the merit part — actual academic and leadership prowess — can also matter plenty. That means that grades aren’t just a factor in getting into a first-choice school, but also in what you might pay for a residential undergraduate education ... The result is an elaborate parallel financial aid system that can totally upend the psychology of picking a college. And because nearly all but the most selective schools now use merit aid at least a little, list prices are increasingly irrelevant for most families. Classrooms at public institutions ... have become more like airplane cabins, where people often pay many different amounts via extensive menus of possible prices."
"It started innocently enough, with private colleges seeking a bit more prestige a few decades ago. They hoped extra money for high-achieving students might attract others who wouldn’t need inducements. Instead, a full-on arms race broke out, slowly, and then seemingly all at once. If one school started offering a discount, similar colleges vying for the same kids had to do the same ... Colleges do not ask applicants to apply separately for merit aid in many instances. That way, when a bucket of money arrives alongside an acceptance notification, it feels like a freebie."