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Last year, the pandemic put pressure on a system that was already undeniably stressful for all involved: college admissions. Students and families faced limitations around visiting campuses, colleges and universities grappled with the frustrating realities of remote learning and we all fretted about finances.

There aren’t a lot of decisions in life with such high financial stakes that require so many steps to get to the bottom line. During a period of intense anxiety made even more daunting by the uncertainties of the pandemic, not knowing your financial aid picture until the last minute is a significant pain point.

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has caused worrisome enrollment declines at many institutions, early data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show.

So here we are, closing in on application season once again, with January the standard deadline for many college-bound seniors applying to competitive four-year schools. What have we learned?

At Whitman College in Washington State, we have learned that it’s imperative to level with families about financial aid — it is time for liberal arts colleges to do more to make it easier for students to know where they stand. There’s no question that the cost of an elite education has risen dramatically in recent decades. (At Whitman, annual costs, without aid, are estimated at $71,182.)

That old chestnut of working your way through college, cobbling together tuition from summer jobs and savings from a diet of ramen noodles no longer applies.

Related: Tuition Tracker: Interactive search tool

At Whitman,the pandemic reaffirmed the value of a new initiative we launched in 2019: our Early Financial Aid Guarantee. What this program does is simple, even if the legwork behind the scenes is often anything but. We give interested students a guaranteed preview of their financial aid package before they even apply. As long as their family’s financial situation doesn’t change, they are guaranteed at least that amount in scholarships, grants and loans if accepted.

We believe thatWhitman is currently the only school with a tool like this. (The College of Wooster in Ohio offers something similar but not identical with its Early Aid Estimator.) Providing this service takes institutional willpower and resources, but schools like Whitman are well-positioned to pull it off in part because of our small size — we aren’t inundated with as many applications as larger schools. We are confident enough in our financial aid awards to lead with this figure without fear of losing applicants.

We give interested students a guaranteed preview of their financial aid package before they even apply.

The reason I consider our approach innovative — and why I urge fellow higher education leaders to follow suit — is this: It upends (or, to borrow a phrase from Silicon Valley, “hacks”) the traditional college admission process to the benefit of families.

Here’s how: By delivering a transparent and easy-to-understand answer to the financial aid question up front. For most students in the U.S., the timeline for college enrollment looks like this: First you narrow down your list of schools, send in your applications and cross your fingers for your favorites. Then, in March or April, you find out where you were accepted; it’s not until this point or even later that you finally receive your financial aid award letter.

In many instances, you then need to make up your mind by May 1. That’s a small window to work through all the financial implications of your choice, not to mention a bottleneck in which financial aid offices are swamped with calls.

As a former first-generation college student myself, I am intimately aware of the barrier this can create for lower- and middle-income families, and especially for students hoping to apply early decision. (It’s well known in higher ed circles that early decision candidates skew wealthier: Students with means have the luxury to commit to their preferred school before finding out their financial aid details, which in turn incentivizes institutions to admit them.)

Related: A boon for colleges and wealthy families, ‘early decision’ is unfair — and here to stay

With our Early Financial Aid Guarantee, we’ve leveled the playing field for students applying early decision. Last year’s pool reflected the same average financial need as our overall applicant pool. Students who received an early guarantee were in fact more likely to apply early decision and more than twice as likely to enroll.

While preparing this op-ed, I spoke with parents who reported that their children submitted about a dozen applications while also applying early decision to Whitman.

“Other schools made us feel like the cost was secondary to being accepted, and that is not reality for the vast number of families,” Zach Maulik of Boise, Idaho, told me. His daughter Gracie is now enrolled here and told me she had tried using financial aid calculators, but “would not have known the total amount or even the accurate approximate range until I was accepted.”

While it wasn’t the determining factor in Gracie’s decision, Whitman’s guarantee made things more straightforward: Had the number come back prohibitive, she could have crossed Whitman off her list and moved on, her father said.

Maura McGinnity, mother of first-year student Aidan Rausch, told me that the guarantee was a crucial data point, as well as an invitation to engage further.

“It felt like a relationship-builder,” said McGinnity, who is the development director for interdisciplinary life sciences at Stanford University. “As in, ‘Now I’ve got something solid I can stand on and think about.’ That was huge for us.”

Liberal arts colleges love to celebrate what makes us special — our sterling academics, picturesque campuses and successful graduates — but a dose of pragmatism doesn’t hurt. At Whitman, only one in five students pays the full sticker price. Let’s let them in on the secret.

Kathleen Murray is the president of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

This story about college financial aid was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Kathleen Murray

Kathleen Murray is the president of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.

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