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Need Blind vs. Need Aware Admission: What Does it Really Mean?

Kristine Sawicki

Written by Kristine Sawickion July 22nd, 2017

I grew up in California and attended a big suburban public high school. For college, I chose Reed in Portland, Oregon, where I studied psychology with a focus in behavioral neuroscience. After a year working as a research assistant at Oregon Health & Sciences University, I switched my professional objective and taught at both the middle and high school levels and coached women’s cross-country. Eventually I made my way to admission work and spent the next eleven years at Reed, culminating in a year as Acting Dean. I later moved to California and spent a few years in the Stanford Office of Undergraduate Admission, where I continued to work directly with students both domestic and international.
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It may be attractive to think of colleges as entities for the greater good, but in actuality they are non-profit businesses with budgets and bottom lines. At most places, tuition revenue is the biggest slice of the college income pie, which means the role of the admission office is not just to bring in a class of a set number of students, but to bring in a set number of revenue dollars in the form of tuition. The practice of being aware of a family’s financial situation in the making of an admission decision is a practice referred to as being need-aware. Most colleges in the U.S. are need-aware. I worked for two different colleges—one that was need-blind in its admission practices and one that was need-aware.  Without fail when an audience of families asked if the college I worked for was need-blind, an answer of “yes” would produce smile, while an answer of “no” would return furrowed brows. Is it really as simple as need-blind being good and need-aware being bad? My experience tells me it is not as simple as it seems, and I encourage families to dig deeper and consider the following:
  1. It’s easy to be need-blind if your applicant pool is rich. If socioeconomic diversity is important to you and motivates your need-blind question, an important follow-up is: what percent of your students are on need-based financial aid? Or, what percent of your students receive Pell Grants? Compare the responses at need-blind and need-aware institutions to see if you find any differences.
  1. A very small handful of colleges in the US are both need-blind and meet 100 percent of demonstrated need (less than ten at last count). This is because most need-blind colleges cannot afford to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need while maintaining a need-blind admission policy. This tension may result in schools making offers of admission to families without enough aid to make it a financially viable option. Families must then decline the offer and attend elsewhere or borrow the kinds of gigantic loans that make front page headlines. If affordability motivates your need-blind question, ask detailed questions about whether a college meets the full demonstrated financial need of its admitted students.
  1. Many colleges that are need-aware are actually only need-aware for a small portion of their applicant pool, often impacting ten percent of students or less. If you are concerned that a school’s being need-aware will hinder your chances of admission, or if you want to be strategic in identifying the schools where being able to pay full tuition could be to your advantage, ask what percentage of the applicant pool is affected by the school’s need-awareness. The answer can tell you whether need is a major factor—or a minor one—in the final decisions handed down to students in March. Additionally, many need-aware colleges do have the ability to meet 100 percent of demonstrated need, resulting in offers only to students who can be fully funded should they attend.


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