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Financial Aid: Need-Blind vs. Need-Aware Admissions

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Tuition is expensive and student loans are rising by the year — the latest set of graduates  in 2015 walked off the stage with a diploma and a little over $35,000 in debt, which is practically another semester’s worth of tuition at some of these institutions. So it’d make sense if financial aid and scholarships were high up on your list of college selection criteria.


However, on the flip side, for some colleges, financial need is actually one of the deciding factors that affect the acceptability of an applicant. This kind of admissions is called “need-aware admissions,” while the opposite situation when colleges don’t factor an applicant’s financial need into their admissions decision is called “need-blind admissions.”


It gets even more complicated from there on out though — some colleges are need-blind, but not for international students. Others are need-aware, but guarantee that an applicant’s full financial need will be met. Others are need blind but don’t guarantee that full need will be met.


So what does this all mean for you, the applicant, and what should you watch out for? We’ll clarify a few commonly-used terms and questions here about financial aid and admissions so you can have a better idea of how each institution distributes their money to their students.


Quick Definitions


Before we begin, there are a few terms that we should define.


Financial need: In layman’s terms, this is how much the school decides that you (or your family) should be able to reasonably spend on tuition each year. This is calculated based on you or your family’s income and the amount of taxes you or your family pays.


Need-aware admissions: When a college takes into account you or your family’s earning capacity in relation to their tuition, housing, and dining costs when deciding whether or not to admit you as an applicant.


Need-blind admissions: A college that has need-blind admissions separates an applicant’s academic standings, scores, and essays from their family’s financial situation when evaluating whether or not to take the student. In fact, many of these institutions don’t even calculate aid until they’ve accepted a student already.


Types of Need-Blind Admissions


There are generally three different flavors of need-blind admissions.


Need-Blind Admissions + Meet Full Demonstrated Financial Need

This is the definition that many students think of when they think “need-blind” — the college completely doesn’t care how much money you’d need from them, and will make their admissions decision apart from that. What’s more, if they do decide to accept you, they’ll give you as much money as you need as long as you choose to attend their institution. These colleges also don’t care if you’re a domestic or international student; everyone gets the same treatment — they don’t look at the financial need of international applicants when deciding whether or not to admit them, and international applicants will also receive all the aid they need.


Of course, these colleges are few and far between. Only five institutions in the United States follow this rule, and they happen to be five of the most selective — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, and Amherst.


Need-Blind Admissions for Domestic Students +  Meet Full Demonstrated Financial Need

These colleges operate similarly to those mentioned above, except that international students will be evaluated on a need-aware basis where the applicant’s entire profile — including their demonstrated financial need — is judged based on how compatible it would be with what the college has to offer. However, for the international students they do accept, these colleges will provide the applicants with as much money as they need to attend the institution.


The reason for making this distinction is usually because of money reasons; many of the colleges that employ this admissions method have smaller endowments than the five colleges above. Some institutions that employ this method are Brown, Columbia, Duke, and Stanford.


Need-Blind Admissions for Domestic Students + Do Not Meet Full Demonstrated Financial Need

These colleges differ from the ones above in one very crucial way: they promise that they won’t look at the financial need of a domestic applicant during admissions, but they don’t promise that they will be able to give a student enough money to fulfill their entire financial need. They also will look at international students’ financial need when reviewing applications, but also don’t guarantee that the students’ demonstrated need will be met if they are accepted. Though these schools will try the best they can to fulfill every accepted student’s financial need to the best of their ability, sometimes the aid they provide will fall a little short.


Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, and New York University are some of the colleges that admit students based on this model.


Types of Need-Aware Admissions

Need-aware admissions are the opposite of need-blind admissions; the admissions decision is made with the applicant’s financial background in mind. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes colleges will give out more generous financial aid packages to need-aware admits since they know ahead of time how much money they would need to give out to their admits.


Applicants to need-aware institutions are still evaluated primarily on their academic stats, essays, and recommendations over their financial ability; no applicant will be accepted solely because they can pay full tuition. Also, many colleges that employ need-aware methods only do so for a portion of their students, such as transfer students or students on the waitlist.


There are two types of need-aware colleges.


Need-Aware Admissions + Meet Full Financial Need

Like the name implies, these institutions will judge an applicant’s entire portfolio at once, including how much tuition they may or may not be able to pay. But the good news is that once this type of college accepts you, they guarantee that they will be able to give you enough money to close the gap between how much you or your family is able to pay and their tuition costs. Another good thing is that most of these institutions offer financial aid comprised largely of grants — which is essentially gift money from the institution itself that you have no obligation to pay back, whereas many other need-aware and need-blind institutions like to pad out their aid with loans.


Some of the colleges that follow this model of operations are Scripps College, Tufts University, Washington University in St. Louis, and Bryn Mawr College.


Need-Aware Admissions that Do Not Meet Full Financial Need

For many colleges, cost is just as important to them as it is to you — due to limitations on the size of their endowment and various other factors, they have to consider the cost of admitting each applicant to their institution. So they will take into account how much of their tuition you can reasonably be expected to pay, but they also do not guarantee that they will be able to meet all of that need either. Many colleges follow this model, including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Drexel University, and Quinnipiac University.


Either way, whether the colleges you’re looking at are need-blind or need-aware, the admissions process is only the first piece of the financial aid puzzle. The paperwork you need to file and each institution’s individual policies are also very important things to thoroughly understand to make sure that you’re getting the best value for your money. However, hopefully this post has been a helpful start. 


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Paying for college can be a confusing and challenging road to navigate. We help families understand how to maximize financial aid and calculate the return on their college investment.

Jeanette Si
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Jeanette is a junior at Cornell University double majoring in Information Science and China and Asia-Pacific Studies. As someone who’s received a lot of help from mentors during her personal admissions process, she’s looking to give back now that her own admissions season is behind her. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found singing show tunes (terribly), playing MOBAs (passably), or quoting Jane Austen (expertly).