What you need to know about need-blind admissions

Dr. Michael Nietzel
Dr. Michael Nietzel

Dr. Michael Nietzel is a Senior Educational Policy Advisor to the Missouri Governor. He was appointed President of Missouri State University in 2005. He has also worked as the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kentucky, where he was Chair of the Psychology Department, Dean of the Graduate School, and Provost.

What you need to know about need-blind admissions

    When students apply for college, institutions consider several bits of information as they evaluate the thousands of applications that are received. What grades did applicants earn in high school? What courses did they take? What kinds of extracurricular activities did they participate in? What are their academic interests? Do they have strong letters of recommendation? And still at many schools, how did they score on standardized tests like the ACT or SAT?

    In addition, there is another factor that many schools, especially those with more selective admissions procedures, consider:  the ability of students or their families to pay for the cost of attending a particular school.

    When considering 2 or more students with relatively equal academic backgrounds, colleges often use ability to pay as an admissions “tie-breaker.”

    Need-aware admissions

    In many cases, a student’s ability to pay a school’s listed tuition without having to receive any financial aid will be a plus when their application for admission is evaluated. When considering 2 or more students with relatively equal academic backgrounds, colleges often use ability to pay as an admissions “tie-breaker.”

    What are need-aware admissions?

    An admission process in which a student’s financial need is taken into account.

    Giving any attention to students’ ability to pay “full freight” seems unfair, but colleges that do this typically proffer 2 justifications. First, they use a Robin Hood rationale: requiring wealthy students to pay all their costs allows the college to admit more students from lower income backgrounds with discounted fees that encourage their attendance. And second, to generate enough revenue to balance their budgets, colleges need to ensure a certain percentage of students are paying tuition and fee charges in full.

    The good news for students is that a substantial number of colleges and universities recognize the problems of using ability to pay as an admissions criterion and, as a result, they have committed to using a process known as “need-blind admissions.”

    Here are some basic facts and information you should know about needs-based admissions.

    Need-blind admissions

    Need-blind admissions means that a college will not consider an applicant’s financial situation when making admissions decisions. Applicants may still need to submit information about their financial situation, most likely in the form of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or the College Board’s CSS profile. This information is used to determine any financial aid package the institution might offer, rather than whether, or not, it will admit the applicant.

    Need-blind admissions is an attempt to base admissions decisions on individual merit; in other words, on a student’s accomplishments and prospects without regard to their socioeconomic status.

    » Read: How many colleges should I apply to?

    Which schools have need-blind admissions procedures?

    The number of colleges using need-blind admissions changes frequently as new schools opt to go that direction, and other schools others decide they can no longer afford to continue the policy. One recent source lists 105 institutions in the U.S. that claim to use need-blind admission procedures.

    This includes all the Ivy League universities as well as several other very prestigious universities such as Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Vanderbilt, Duke, Northwestern, Rice and Notre Dame. A number of elite liberal arts colleges are also represented, including Amherst, Kenyon, Wellesley, William, Swarthmore, and Grinnell.

    In October 2021, Washington University in St. Louis  (WashU) became the most recent major university to declare it was going to convert to need-based admissions. But, it went a step further. It also committed $1 billion in financial aid so that in addition to not considering an applicant’s financial situation when making admissions decisions, the university will also meet 100% of demonstrated financial need for all the undergraduates it admits.

    The WashU policy brings us to an important distinction that must be kept in mind when understanding what need-blind admissions means at any given school.

    Demonstrated financial need

    Just because a college employs need-blind admissions does not mean that financially needy students will have all their costs of education covered at that school. To explain this further, we first need to acknowledge that there are basically 2 kinds of need-blind colleges.

    The first kind are colleges that use need-blind procedures to make their admission decisions but don’t necessarily offer any financial aid to help students pay for their education. Students attending these schools are required to pay tuition, fees, room and board through some combination of family contributions, private scholarships, loans, or state or federal aid that they qualify for.

    However, most colleges that use need-blind admissions also include institutional financial aid for admitted students.

    However, most colleges that use need-blind admissions also include institutional financial aid for admitted students. This institutional aid may cover a student’s full costs of education – the so-called “full-ride.” More likely,  it covers some or even all of the difference between the listed tuition and the amount the student’s family is expected to pay toward the costs of college – known as “demonstrated financial need.”

    A list of need-blind admission colleges that claim to meet 100% of “demonstrated financial need” can be found here. In order to be certain that you have a clear understanding of the type of need-blind admissions employed by a given college and what it means for financial aid, consult the admissions section of the institution’s webpage or call the admissions office directly with your questions.

    How to get a better financial aid package

    Assume a student has been admitted to either a need-blind, or a “need-aware” college for that matter, but the financial aid package the school has offered is not enough for the student to afford attending there? Can a better deal be negotiated?

    The short answer is yes, but one needs to be strategic about how to approach that task.  Don’t think of it so much as a negotiation – a term that college financial aid officers resent – but as an appeal of the initial financial aid offer from the college.

    The best approach is to prove that the student’s financial need is greater than the amount indicated by the FAFSA or the CSS Profile.

    Generally, trying to bargain for more aid from the institution on the basis of a student’s outstanding academic record  is not successful. Good grades and test scores helped the student get admitted to the college, but are not typically reasons leading an institution to reconsider and then sweeten their financial aid offer.

    The best approach is to prove that the student’s financial need is greater than the amount indicated by the FAFSA or the CSS Profile. Because those forms reflect financial information from data that is 2 years old, one of the best chances for a revised offer is to show that there have been substantial changes in a family’s financial situation since the form was completed.

    Documenting “special circumstances” such as a recent cut in salary or a layoff from a job is the best avenue for pursuing an appeal. Recent occurrences of unexpected expenses, a change in marital status, a medical emergency, adoption or birth of another child are other examples of special circumstances that could lead to a better aid package.

    Mark Kantrowitz, an expert on financial aid, offers this practical advice for filing a financial aid appeal:

    • “Write a short letter to the college financial aid office that summarizes the special circumstances and their financial impact on the family. Be specific as to dates and amounts.
    • Keep the letter short and to the point, a maximum of 1-2 pages. Colleges do not want to hear your entire life story.
    • Include copies of documentation of the special circumstances with the appeal letter.
    • Do not ask for a specific sum of money, as this can reduce the amount of financial aid you receive. Once a college decides that the special circumstances justify an adjustment to the financial aid package, the process is formulaic. If you ask for less money, that’s all you’ll get.”

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