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Need-Blind Admissions is Exactly What It Says It Is (Part One)

Ian Fisher College Coach

Written by Ian Brook Fisheron August 1st, 2014

I began my career in admissions by walking backwards as a student intern, giving guided tours, interviewing students, and reading applications for my alma mater, Reed College. After graduating, I began full-time work in admissions, reading thousands of applications primarily from the Western United States, especially Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. (I got to eat the best food on my travel!) In my last three years at Reed, I directed admissions for the entire continent of Asia and served as the director of marketing and communications for the admission office, honing our official voice for web, print, and social media. This helped me to develop a sharp eye for what works (and what doesn’t) in college essays. While Reed is not known (at all!) for sports, I was able to find my competitive outlet with the ultimate Frisbee team as a player and, when I graduated, a coach. After nine wonderful years at Reed, I left Portland to pursue a M.A. at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. When I graduated and joined College Coach, I was living in Palo Alto, California, an experience that helped me learn so much about the UC and CSU system and high school programs all around the Bay Area. In the end, I missed the rain too much, and moved back to Portland in the summer of 2016.
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Last Thursday, Bev Taylor authored an article on Huffington Post, claiming “Need Blind Admissions Is a Lie.” Its publication ignited a flurry of responses among college admissions professionals both publicly and privately. For those of us who read applications at highly selective institutions, her article simply did not jibe with the reality of our own experiences. Those on my team who worked for institutions like the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Georgetown, and Babson were adamant that need-blind admissions means exactly what it says. I hope that the following conversation will help provide a clear response to Taylor’s article and offer some clarification on some challenging issues in admission and financial aid in higher education. Why this matters The reason that colleges try to be transparent about their admissions and financial aid policies isn’t because they are trying to trick you into creating a disadvantage for yourself. It’s because they’re trying to keep you as informed as possible through a very stressful process. Admissions officers are educators, and they want students to be successful in college without incurring significant financial hardship, whether at their institution or elsewhere. Our objective is to help students understand the policies of both our admissions and financial aid offices and the ways in which the two intersect. Any failure to communicate those truths is neither a lie nor dishonorable; it is simply a failure to communicate. The experienced team at College Coach understands how the reading process functions at highly selective colleges and universities that are both need blind and need aware, and our experience is not reflected in Taylor’s article. Nor, apparently, is it the experience of many other admissions professionals at high schools and colleges around the country, who have expressed equally strong disagreement with the article’s central argument. Perhaps our biggest concern is that this belief in the fiction of need-blind admissions policies creates the potential for families to make catastrophic changes in their applications in order to game the system and secure admission. A student who ought to apply for and receive an application fee waiver may not do so because of the incorrect belief that it will prime admissions officers to look at his application unfavorably. He applies to fewer schools in an attempt to save money for his family, thereby limiting his options when admissions decisions are conferred in late March. A student who would qualify for aid chooses not to apply for aid due to the misguided belief that it will help her chances of admission without any significant disadvantages. In the end, she finds herself in a horrible position: admitted to the college of her dreams but without the financial aid package to afford it. Ultimately, this is the misguided strategy that Taylor seems to be advocating: help give yourself an edge in getting into the college of your dreams, but when it comes time to pay for it, you’re on your own. That is simply unacceptable. Understanding terms The terms we use in admissions and financial aid sound simple but are easily confused by the layperson. That’s why articles like this get so much attention, and why my colleagues at College Coach work really hard to help families understand the meanings of admissions and financial aid jargon. Among these complex terms, “need blind” and “need aware” are relatively straightforward: a school is need blind if your finances play no role in your chances of admission; a school is need aware if your finances can play at least some role in your chances of admission. In the latter case, some students with the ability to pay full tuition have a slight advantage in the admission process—call it an institutional priority. It’s important to understand, however, that need blind and need aware policies are all about the admissions process and have nothing to do with how a school provides students with financial aid. When it comes to financial aid policies, you should be looking for schools that “meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need.” Paired with a need-blind admissions policy, a school that meets 100 percent of demonstrated need will provide lower and middle-income students with the best chance of receiving an offer of admission and a competitive financial aid package. Need-aware schools that meet 100 percent of demonstrated need may prove more challenging for low and middle-income students in terms of admission, but are likely to provide competitive financial aid for those students who are admitted. If there is one issue with which most families struggle, it is the meaning of the word “need.” My colleague Robert Weinerman, who worked in financial aid at Babson College and MIT among others, told me that almost every family thinks they need more money than the college does. He says the financial aid formula does not really calculate a “need” in the sense that most people think of need. It calculates a figure that places the student on a relative index of ability-to-pay based on whatever the formula the college uses. And schools aren’t unclear about this. You can arm yourself with a rough estimate of your family’s likely need-based financial award using the school’s net price calculator on its website. Check back with us tomorrow, when we publish part two of our response to Taylor’s article, challenging her central claim that need blind admissions doesn’t make logical sense. New Call-to-Action


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