The Guide to Financial Aid

Decades ago, several private colleges and universities adopted a policy of not requiring any of its students to take on substantial debt in order to attend school.  They recognized that educational debt from a private school could cripple students, pressuring the student to put the need to make money over the desire to pursue the his/her true calling in life.  These schools decided that they would cover the costs of attendance for any student who could not cover the cost of attendance on his/her own.

However, guaranteeing full financial aid was risky, as admitting a class with too many students unable to cover the costs of attendance would result in a heavy financial burden for the school.  Schools recognized this risk and took different approaches to managing this risk.

Because certain private schools were well-funded and/or historically enrolled mostly students whose families could easily cover the cost of attendance, these schools were confident that the cost of this policy would never exceed their ability to pay for it.  These schools practiced “need-blind” admissions policies, where the financial status of the applicant was not taken into account in the evaluation of his or her candidacy.  In effect, the school imposed an imaginary wall between the admissions department and the financial aid department.  This separation was necessary to prevent admissions officers from taking the school’s financial situation into account when admitting students, which could cause them to reject students who were qualified but would require the school to cover part or all of the cost of attendance.

However, some schools either lacked the available funds for financial aid and/or historically enrolled large amounts of students unable to cover the cost of attendance.  These schools could not afford to be “need-blind” because of the risk that they admit too many students unable to cover the costs of attendance, which could present a financial responsibility exceeding the school’s ability to pay. These schools had to ensure that they did not enroll more students unable to cover the cost of attendance than they could pay for.  This situation led to what we call “need-aware” admissions.

In a “need-aware” admissions office, the admissions department consults with the financial aid department on the school’s financial aid capabilities for that year.  If a school has exhausted its financial aid capabilities for that year, the admissions officer might reject a qualified student who is unable to meet the costs of attendance at the school.

Because of shrinking endowments brought on by the recession, along with rising tuition and living costs, many colleges and universities find that their ability to cover the full cost of attendance for students has diminished.  As a result, many admissions offices that were traditionally “need-blind” have been forced to become “need-aware”.

What does this mean for the academically strong student who might lack the funds to pay for an expensive college education?  It means that there will be many students who will have all the makings of a top candidate; possessing strong standardized test scores, an impressive GPA, persuasive personal statements, and amazing letters of recommendations, but who will end up being denied admission because he or she did not have enough money to cover the costs of room, board, tuition, books.

The result of this phenomenon is that because of the significant costs involved, many students will not apply to some of the more exclusive colleges and universities in the United States despite having a good chance of gaining admission.  As mentioned, there are some schools that continue to practice “need-blind” admissions, and some of them have even extended it to international students.  These schools:

  1. Wesleyan University
  2. Williams College
  3. Harvard University
  4. Middlebury College
  5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
  6. Princeton University
  7. Williams College and
  8. Yale University

Because these policies change from time to time, it is best that you check with the school on their current policy.

At the time of writing, the schools which still practice “need-blind” admissions include:

  1. Amherst College

10.  Beloit College

11.  Boston College

12.  Bowdoin College

13.  Brandeis University

14.  Brown University

15.  California Institute of Technology

16.  Claremont McKenna College

17.  Columbia University

18.  Cornell University

19.  Cooper Union

20.  Dartmouth College

21.  Duke University

22.  Emory University

23.  Georgetown University

24.  Grinnell College

25.  Harvard University

26.  Haverford College

27.  Lawrence University

28.  Massachusetts Institute of Technology

29.  Middlebury College

30.  Northwestern University

31.  Pomona College

32.  Princeton University

33.  Rice University

34.  Stanford University

35.  Swarthmore College

36.  University of Chicago

37.  University of Pennsylvania

38.  University of Richmond

39.  University of Virginia

40.  Vassar College

41.  Vanderbilt University

42.  Wellesley College

43.  Wesleyan University

44.  Williams College

45.  Yale University

Given that the majority of colleges and universities are not need-blind, you will need to bear in mind that for most schools, the admissions officers will still be taking your ability to pay in deciding on whether or not to accept you.  Therefore, there are some things you need to take into consideration when applying to colleges and universities and seeking to get financial help from the academic institutions:

  1. Total Cost

Given the fact that you will not know how much a college will cost you until they send you the financial aid package, it is very important that when you are selecting which schools to apply to, that you do not base your decision on the actual published cost of the college.  The reason why we make this point is that so many families get into huge arguments over which schools they should apply to, not understand that the more expensive and exclusive private schools tend to be able shell out more money in terms of scholarship than the public universities.

For example, for the incoming class of 2009 (graduating class of 2013), Harvard University’s average financial aid package was $40,533.  This stands in sharp contrast to a top public university such as University of Michigan, which had an average financial aid package of $8,615.  So although the private school might have a higher published cost, when you take into account the financial aid package it is willing to offer, this price differential might dissipate.

The school will base how much your need to contribute based on how much your family can afford, this is commonly referred to as the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).  To get an idea as to how much your EFC would be before you hear back from the schools, you can go to various websites to do a rough calculation.  Our favorite is College Board’s EFC Calculator which can be found on its website (

  1. Financial Aid Forms

To be competitive for scholarship money, it is imperative that you submit the forms on time.  To be able to do this, you need to check with the schools you are applying to which financial aid forms they require.  The one form that all students need to submit to be considered for scholarship money will be the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which will be available in November online at  Some schools might require other forms and it is important that you see what forms you need to prepare.

  1. Merit-Based Scholarships

As mentioned, many schools have had no choice but to do away with their “need-blind” admissions policies and have had to start taking into account the student’s ability to pay.  However, that is not to say they are no longer giving out money.  The money that is being dispensed will be more focused, and the schools are moving towards merit-based scholarships, giving out money according to who they would like to attract to their school.  These is based on the institutional polices, policies which determine what kinds of students they want at the particular institution.

Merit scholarships, sometimes referred to as academic scholarships, are scholarships given to students who have exceedingly good grades and, most likely, graduate in the top five to ten percent of your class. Merit scholarships are often related to academic performance, but can also be given to a candidate displaying artistic or athletic excellence or sometimes a combination of the abovementioned there factors.

  1. Negotiation

If you receive a financial aid package with your admissions decision, you should seek to re-negotiate with the other schools you have been admitted to in order to encourage them to give you better financial aid packages.  You should get in contact with the director of admissions at the school in question and present your case.  Explain to them that you really want to attend their school but money is a concern and that you have received better financial aid packages from other schools.  In some instances, schools will reevaluate your case and try to match or better your other offers.  Of course, we have to be realistic here.  This will not happen for everyone and more often than not, the best package will likely come from the school you least likely want to attend.  Regardless of this, you should always try to renegotiate for a better package.  You won’t know until you have tried.

It is also worth noting that throughout this process that it is very helpful that you get to know the directors of financial aid at the various schools well and begin correspondence early in the game.  Arrange to meet him if you do visit the campus, get his name and email address, and drop him an email from time to time with questions regarding financial aid.  In this way, he will have you in his mind when you come to speak to him later in the application season when you are negotiating or re-negotiating for a financial aid package.


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