Need-Blind and Need-Aware: Admissions Policies that Guarantee Full Financial Aid and How Those Policies Can Hurt Your Chances for Admission

Lady Justice

Justice, said to be blind as well, is sometimes able to smell money.

Adding yet another layer of complexity to the process of selecting colleges, U.S. colleges are now redefining their policies on need-blind and need-aware admissions.  Typically, certain schools maintain a policy where every student they admit will be able to attend the school without taking on too much debt (less than $5,000/4 years).  This policy requires to offer grants to admitted students who cannot pay for the cost of attendance on their own.

However, this policy can get expensive if the school admits too many financially “needy” students.  This is because the school is forced to pay for the students irrespective of whether the school can afford it that year.  To prevent budget deficits, some schools will refuse to admit too many financially “needy” students, even if those students are perfectly qualified applicants.  These schools are considered “need-aware” in admissions because financial need plays a factor in their admissions decision.

Conversely, schools that are “need-blind” do not factor financial need into the admissions decision.  “Need-blind” schools will admit students based solely on merit and only later figure out the financial aid package for each admitted student.  Sometimes, these “need-blind” schools will not be able to ensure that every admitted student can attend without taking on student debt.  Even worse, some students who claim to be “need-blind” actually end up admitting much less financial “needy” students than “need-aware” schools.

The methods are complicated, even for seasoned professionals.  Even worse, these need-blind and need-aware policies have actually gotten more complex as a result of the recession eating into endowments and state budgets.  Now, some schools are going need-blind for 90% of the applicant pool and need-aware for the least competitive 10% of the pool.  The thinking is that the most deserving applications will still be decided on merit and will be guaranteed a full financial aid package, while only the borderline students will be discriminated against on the basis of financial need.   The only limit at this point is the creativity of the admissions officers.

Applicants who are financial needy or on the borderline should be aware of “need-blind” and “need-aware” policies before deciding on which schools to apply to.  Using one of your reach/long-shot options on a “need-aware” school will often be a waste of an application since most schools will not spend their limited financially “needy” slots on a marginal applicant.

To maximize your chances of admission to a school which will provide a full financial aid package but which is “need-aware” in admissions, you will have to both 1) apply early and 2)be at the top-end of the applicant pool.  Applying early is easy: just submit the application on the opening day of the application cycle.  However, positioning yourself at the top-end of the applicant pool is harder because schools will define top-end differently depending on how many financially “needy” spots the school has for that year.  Thus, it is important to know how many financially “needy” spots the school has for the upcoming year and what type of students the school is willing to devote full financial aid packages to.


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