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Need Blind vs Need Aware College Admission

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College is incredibly expensive. We know it, you know it, and colleges definitely know it. Schools know that not everyone who applies will be able to afford the cost of tuition. While many schools offer some degree of financial aid, they aren’t able to help every student; there are too many students and too few financial resources.

When deciding which students to admit, some colleges take into account your ability to pay. In this article, we’ll go over what that means, what schools take this into account, how this should impact your admissions strategy, and whether or not you are able to pay. Applying to college is stressful, but the better you understand the process, the easier time you will have. With that in mind, let’s get started and cover need blind vs need aware college admission.

What is Need Blind Admission?

Some schools do not take into account your ability to pay at all when making admissions decisions. The financial aid office is entirely stonewalled and operates separately. Admissions officers will take your economic background into account in some circumstances, but only to understand the context of challenges you may have faced or overcome. 

The reason colleges do this is to provide an even playing field. The goal is for college to be equally accessible to all, regardless of your ability to pay for it. Of course, many colleges depend on revenue generated by tuition to keep operating; thus not every school is able to be need blind. Generally, only the schools with the largest endowments have the financial leeway for this.

Need aware admissions, on the other hand, is a complicated procedure by which schools attempt to distribute limited financial aid while ensuring they have enough revenue to keep the lights on. This article describes some of the mechanics of this process at Trinity College in Connecticut, but that school is hardly unique.

To sum it up: most schools have a limited amount of money they can use for financial aid. This is divided into need-based and merit-based aid. Need aware admissions looks at how much each student can pay, how much they are likely to pay, and whether offering a small scholarship will make a student more likely to pay.

A Note on Guaranteed Aid

Separate from, but related to Need Blind admissions are the schools that offer to meet a student’s entire demonstrated financial need. Both need blind and need aware schools do this, but some schools offer loans instead of grants or scholarship money.

These twelve schools are both need blind and pledge to meet all demonstrated financial need without loans:

  • Amherst College
  • Bowdoin
  • Brown
  • Columbia
  • Davidson College
  • Harvard
  • MIT
  • Pomona College
  • Princeton
  • Stanford
  • Swarthmore
  • UChicago

While these are all among the nation’s top schools, many notable names are absent from this list. A school needs to have a truly large endowment to make this offer and be able to back it up. Most colleges do not have the necessary financial resources to be both need blind and guarantee to meet all aid.

How this Impacts your Application Strategy

How this impacts your application strategy depends on whether or not you have significant financial needs. We will cover both here, as they are very different in terms of considerations. This will impact not just how you apply to colleges, but what scholarships you should aim for.

Whether you count as needing financial aid varies by college, but for most schools families earning $100,000 or more annually do not qualify for any need-based financial aid. The top schools have slightly higher benchmarks, you can learn more about those in our article here.

Students Without Significant Need

If your family earns more than $100,000 per year, colleges will expect you to pay some, most, or all of the given cost of tuition. While you can still get scholarships, they will generally be merit-based, rather than need-based. That said, in some circumstances, it may be easier for you to receive aid than students with financial need, due to a system called enrollment management.

Enrollment management is how colleges determine who gets how much scholarship money, in order to make sure the college gets enough money to run. Many colleges have found that offering merit-based scholarships to students who would otherwise pay full tuition entices them to enroll in the school.

Thus, schools can get some money from these students by offering them a partial scholarship. At a school with a $40,000 annual tuition, giving four students who can pay the full amount a $10,000 scholarship each net the school $120,000 dollars a year. Thus by giving away a little bit of money, schools are able to land a lot more. How much money gets offered in merit aid is calculated by algorithms, and colleges guard the secrets of these closely.

We can, however, still give you advice based on how past Ivy Scholars students have approached applications when financial aid was a concern, but they were above the $100,000 line. 

One former student had good grades, and great test scores, and would have been competitive at some top schools. Instead, we helped him draft a list of lower-tier public and private schools, all of which were known for offering merit aid. Many of these schools eventually offered him merit scholarships to entice him to attend, and he was able to judge between multiple financial aid options when making his final choice.

Students With Significant Need

Through our pro-bono program, Ivy Scholars also helps students who would struggle to pay for college. These families earn less than $60,000 per year, and we encourage them to apply for both merit and need-based scholarships.

While these students can earn merit scholarships, due to the rising trend of enrollment management, they are far less likely to be offered them at some schools. Therefore, we try to steer these students towards programs that offer generous financial needs; both in terms of private scholarships, and universities.

Generally, the larger a university’s endowment is, the more likely it is to offer generous need-based aid. Indeed, among the Ivy+ colleges, only UChicago offers merit scholarships; the rest only offer need-based aid.

In spite of these noble intentions, however, economically disadvantaged students still struggle to get into top colleges. According to a New York Times article, at 38 top colleges, more students come from the top 1% than from the bottom 60%. Thus while funds like UChicago’s Odyssey Scholarship have almost $1,000,000,000 in funds, could pay for the full tuition needs of all students forever, they are being underutilized due to the relatively small number of students with need admitted to top colleges.

Thus while students who lack financial resources would be best served by top colleges, the road to admissions is often difficult. With our pro-bono program, we’re offering brilliant students the same admissions advantages as we give to all our clients.

A past pro-bono student came to us needing help with essays and navigating the admissions process. We helped her draw up a list of schools with generous financial aid and guided her through writing a personal statement that showed her strength of character. While she was admitted to great schools around the country, including USC, NYU, and UT Austin’s Business Honors Program, she decided to attend Rice, as they offered her a full-ride need-based scholarship.

If you have serious financial needs, focus your efforts on the universities you have the best chance of getting aid for. If you had less than stellar grades in high school, taking a year at community college before transferring can be beneficial. Many schools don’t consider high school grades for transfer students, giving you a fresh start. See our guide to transferring here.

Final Thoughts on Need Blind vs Need Aware Admission

Paying for college is a challenge, especially as the price tags at top colleges reach new highs with each passing year. While we can’t help you pay for college directly, we can help you navigate the shifting field of financial aid. We hope that by explaining how aid is awarded, you are better able to apply to colleges with confidence and find the schools best suited to your needs.

If you want help with your applications, or want our advice on the best college list for your financial needs, schedule a free consultation here, to learn how we can help you. If you are interested in our pro-bono program, see here to learn more about our mission and purpose. Either way, we look forward to hearing from you and helping you with your college dreams.

Need help with college admissions?

Download our "Guide to Everything," a 90-page PDF that covers everything you need to know about the college admission process.

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