Need blind admissions policies do not take into account a student’s socioeconomic status. The school is committing to only consider a student's financial aid package once the acceptance decision is made.
Need aware admissions policies do factor a student’s ability to pay for college into admissions decisions. This doesn’t mean that it is the first or most important factor in the acceptance decision, but means that it could play a role.
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.
Schools don't typically advertise that they are need aware. If a school doesn’t advertise that it’s need blind, it probably isn’t! In the grand scheme of things, it is uncommon for schools to be "need-blind" - only the wealthiest schools can claim this (and, by the way, the wealthiest schools tend to make admissions decisions based on factors that correlate highly to wealth, such as SAT scores).
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.
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.
Also remember that being need-blind does not mean a school will be able to fulfill financial need. In many cases 'need blind' schools will not meet full need of applicants - and so lower-income students could be better off at 'need aware' schools with more generous financial aid packages than at 'need blind' schools that are less generous.
Founded by recognized university leaders, Edmit provides personalized insights and advice to help families find colleges that meet their academic goals and are within their financial means. Families that use Edmit make smarter college choices leading to less debt and better earnings outcomes, saving thousands of dollars.