When it comes to financial aid, need blind colleges and need aware colleges approach admissions differently. Find out which type of college will be more affordable for you.
If you’ve started looking into financial aid for college, you’ve most likely seen the terms need blind colleges and need aware colleges. If you’re not sure what they mean, we’re here to help!
What’s the Difference Between Need Blind and Need Aware Colleges?
“Need blind” and “need aware” are different financial aid admissions policies. The terms refer to whether the college considers a student’s ability to pay for college when making admissions decisions. As the name indicates, need blind admissions policies do not take into account a student’s socioeconomic status. Some schools with need blind admissions policies are Boston College, Brown University, Dartmouth College, and Duke University.
On the other hand, need aware admissions policies do factor a student’s ability to pay for college into admissions decisions. According to college admissions counselor Kat Cohen in the Huffington Post, this doesn’t mean that socioeconomic status is the first thing need aware universities consider when making admissions decisions. It simply means that a student’s ability to pay is considered at some point in the admissions process. As Cohen explains, colleges have a finite amount of financial aid to give, and must make sure they stay within their budget when admitting students.
Most schools cannot afford to be need blind because they rely on tuition revenue to fund their operations. They have a target "discount rate" - meaning that the average student pays a certain price - and they manage towards that average discount rate as they make their admissions decisions. Therefore if they accept students who need significant financial aid to make it work, they need to also accept some who have the ability to pay more. The only way to manage this is to be aware of a student's financial situation as they review the application.
It can be difficult to tell when a college isn’t need blind, as most schools don’t explicitly spell out their need blind or need aware financial aid need policies on their websites. For example, Washington University’s website indicates that they have eliminated student loans as a form of financial aid for some families, but states nothing about whether the college is need blind or need aware. If a school doesn’t advertise that it’s need blind, it probably isn’t, and will instead advertise other positives about its financial aid program, making it difficult to run comparisons.
Not All Need Blind and Need Aware Admissions Policies are Created Equal
At first glance, it seems that need blind admissions policies are better than need aware policies. Not taking into account a family’s need to pay is a good thing, right? Like all things higher ed, however, it’s not so simple. The term “meets full demonstrated need” makes things complicated. While many need blind schools will proudly advertise their admissions policies on their website, they may not guarantee to meet admitted students’ full demonstrated need. For example, Carnegie Mellon University explains they are a need blind school that doesn’t admit students based on their financial status. However, nowhere on their website do they commit to meeting the full demonstrated need of all students admitted. This means that Carnegie Mellon won’t necessarily give students the financial aid they truly need to attend. Conversely, Tufts University is a need aware university that guarantees to meet 100 percent of financial need for students who are accepted. In theory, by admitting students on a need aware basis, Tufts can make sure it has the budget to cover as much of these students’ financial need as possible. (Full disclosure: I’m a Tufts student myself.)
When comparing financial aid programs between schools, families should be aware that there are few universities in the United States that are both need blind and meet 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated need.
In most cases, you’ll want to have realistic conversations with a given college’s financial aid counselors regarding how they approach financial need and affordability. It becomes even more complicated for international students: CollegeVine found that only Amherst College, Harvard University, MIT, Princeton University, and Yale University are need blind and meet full demonstrated need for both domestic and international students.
Why is 'Need-Aware' Controversial?
Need-aware is controversial because it may be perceived to favor students who are 'full pay' or can better afford to pay tuition. The idea is that need-blind is more fair because it looks at students on the merits only. But need aware is for most colleges a matter of survival - to stay in business they create a balanced class. In addition, just because a school is 'need aware' does not mean that it will not make it possible for lower-income students to attend. In fact, all colleges need to figure out how to enroll students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds since the number of full-pay students is low (and shrinking due to demographic trends). Some could argue that being need-aware but providing more fair and generous financial aid packages to a larger group of students is a more admirable approach than being need-blind but not expanding the applicant pool beyond wealthy students.
Do No-Need Students have an Admissions Advantage Over Students who Need Aid?
Students from a higher socioeconomic status are unfortunately advantaged in the college application process overall, for many reasons. But it’s important to keep in mind that just because a school isn’t need blind, doesn’t mean that you won’t receive a decent financial aid package. There are many schools with goals to enroll more lower-income students.
How Can Families Compare Financial Aid Policies?
It’s important to keep in mind that just because a school isn’t need blind or pledges to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need doesn’t mean that you won’t receive a decent financial aid package. One way to get an idea of what a university’s financial aid policy will look like is to speak to a financial aid officer at the school. Ask them about their school’s financial aid budget, the percentage of students that are on financial aid, and whether they pledge to meet a student’s full demonstrated need. Most often, they will be helpful in explaining what their particular school’s policy is. Financial aid calculators, or net price calculators can be incredibly helpful in determining what your financial aid package is likely to look like from different colleges. Many universities have their own financial aid calculators on their websites that use your financial information to estimate your package. We also have our own at Edmit that incorporates not only financial information, but also a student profile. The purpose of these calculators is to help families better understand the investment they are making in terms of a particular university or college.
Ultimately, the most important thing is to do your research! If you use the resources that are available to you, you’ll be able to maximize your financial aid offer.
Here's a list of need-blind colleges in the US:
Click here to see which of them meet 100% of financial need.
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