It’s my favorite time of year, no doubt.

Yes, this is the time when students learn about where they’re admitted to college, but it’s also the start of March Madness, the single greatest sporting event on the annual calendar.

(Note: To my soccer-loving friends, the World Cup only comes around every 4 years. And while I have learned to appreciate the Beautiful Game, nothing in sports compares to the frenetic pace of an NCAA basketball game.)

In addition to the great competition and spectacular upsets, what I also love about March Madness is my accompanying #UniversityGenerosityBracketology.

If you haven’t been paying attention, I dissect each of the 32 first round matchups based on the financial aid generosity levels of each school. I’ve been doing this every year since 2008, and with last year’s event canceled due to COVID-19, we are thrilled to be back.

Why is this important?

When it comes to financial aid and paying for college, schools will vary greatly in the awards that they offer. And some schools award only need-based aid, while others are more generous with merit scholarship awards based on grades, test scores, or other talent assessments.

And so, each year we get a new collection of 64 (or 68 to be precise) Division 1 colleges and universities to dissect and put under a statistical microscope.

Our Top Secret Method for Turning March Matchups into May $cholarships

We take a look at the financial aid generosity levels of every school in the tournament, and we combine that with the 4-year graduation rate and a proprietary bit of pixie dust to create a generosity and efficiency rating. The school with the higher rating advances.

Russian hackers, IBM Security Engineers, and US Dept. of Homeland Security specialists have tried to de-code our methodology, but they’re left as stumped and befuddled as Jay Bilas trying to figure out if 12th seed Georgetown has the goods to take down 5th seed Colorado (we have the answer – see below!).

I realize that my methodology may seem like crackpot lunacy to the average sports fan. But truthfully, you and I both know that your bracket, based entirely on basketball predictions, will very likely look absurdly flawed and nearly hopeless come Monday evening when the 2nd round is over.

And so, I’ve posted my NCAA 2021 UniversityGenerosityBracketology for all to see. Below I’ve highlighted a few key matchups worthy of additional attention:

#1 Illinois vs. #16 Drexel: This matchup is intriguing for several reasons. The Drexel Dragons are making their first NCAA appearance in 25 years and bringing an estimated need-met number of 80% to the Big Dance. And while their 4-year graduation rate may be statistically low at only 27%, the average reader probably doesn’t know about Drexel’s co-op program, where students spend full academic terms away from their studies to find work opportunities in fields related to their major. A better reading would be Drexel’s 5-year graduation rate, which is 67% – not great, but on par with the 4-year rates of University of Florida (68%) and Syracuse (70%). (Full Disclosure – my daughter attends Drexel, and she’s about to start her 2nd Co-op. She’ll finish college with work experience and a solid resume). Illinois is clearly the better basketball school, but they only meet 70% of demonstrated need. Illinois does graduate 70% of its students in 4 years, a very good rate for a state university. But I’ll take the Dragons and their 80% need met. They also offer some good merit money to offset their high sticker price, and there’s something to be said for family harmony.

#5 Villanova vs. #12 Winthrop: Villanova is a perennial basketball powerhouse, and they also boast a pretty good financial aid number (80% need met). In addition, Villanova offers some decent merit award opportunities. For students seeking a competitive university in a suburban, residential setting near a major city, Villanova checks many boxes. And with an 87% 4-year grad rate, you’re likely to be finished on schedule. Winthrop only meets 60% of need, and their 4 year grad rate is an abysmal 38%. While some may be tempted to take the 12th seed (a common upset matchup), I’ll stick with the Wildcats over the Eagles.

#8 UNC vs. #9 Wisconsin: These 8 v. 9 matchups are always tossups, and this battle of two flagships is no exception. Still, with my methodology it’s not even close. Traditional basketball power UNC enters following a down year on the hard wood – in fact just 3 weeks ago they were considered a bubble team. But the Carolina Covenant is one of the most generous financial aid programs of any state university in the land, meeting 100% of demonstrated need to qualifying candidates. And at 84%, UNC’s grad rate is near the top for state universities. Go Heels!

#8 Loyola-Chicago vs. #9 GA Tech: Another basketball tossup that requires some statistical dissection. LUC meets 84% of demonstrated need, a respectable number compared to the Ramblin’ Wreck’s 65%. A look at GA Tech’s graduation rate is deceptive (see Drexel above), as many students take time off for co-ops and other experiential learning, or they double-major. If you’re a GA resident then you benefit from in-state tuition at an elite university; otherwise, you will need to hope for one of the few highly competitive merit awards for any discount. When it comes to both financial aid and basketball, Hope is not a strategy. I’ll go with the Ramblers from Loyola, though I don’t expect to see Sister Jean on the sidelines in Indianapolis this year since attendance will be limited due to COVID-19.

#3 Arkansas vs. #14 Colgate: Two years ago I went with Colgate over another SEC school. While Colgate lost that matchup to Tennessee, I’m sticking with the Raiders and their 100% demonstrated need over the Razorbacks, who don’t report their financial aid numbers (how bad must they be?). Furthermore, students are twice as likely to graduate in 4 years from Colgate than their counterparts in Fayetteville (88% vs. 42%). With the Ivy League absent this year, Colgate might top the bracket as the most generous school in the field.

#12 Georgetown vs. #5 Colorado: Basketball purists know that the 12 vs. 5 matchup is always precarious, and many pundits will take a chance and go with Georgetown in this one. If they follow my methodology it’s a no-brainer: while Colorado does offer merit scholarships to attract out-of-state students, Georgetown meets 100% of demonstrated need with a 90% 4-year graduation rate. I’ll stick with the Hoyas.

Click to download my NCAA 2021 UniversityGenerosityBracketology.

So what’s the real point in all of this?

When it comes to selecting colleges with your child (for admissions, that is), it’s important to know their financial aid generosity levels and their 4-year graduation rates, among other data. For most colleges these numbers are published and available – it just take some time to research them. Not all schools meet financial need in the same way, but because of financial aid some of those high-priced, elite private colleges (like Colgate and Georgetown) can be more affordable to middle class families.

When it comes to your #MarchMadness bracket, follow my advice at your peril. But when it comes to selecting colleges to attend, be sure to consider these additional data points. And you never know – my bracket advice might help you win a few games and take some pesos from your friends in the coming weeks. More likely, it will help you save literally thousands of dollars in additional financial aid.

Enjoy the games this month, and may the best (and most generous) school win!

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