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Financial Aid, Admissions, and "Need Blind" Policies


Clients have asked me repeatedly to explain the relationship between the financial aid and admissions offices, and to help them to understand how financial need is factored into admissions decisions.  Usually these questions revolve around whether a college is “need blind” or “need aware.”  So in this post, I’ll try to shed some light on how the admissions and financial aid offices at private colleges and universities work together.

Generally, the Admissions and Financial Aid offices are operated separately, but usually the two are overseen by a Dean or Vice-President of “Enrollment Management,” or some such title. This should give you a clue that the two offices, while administratively independent, are two sides of the same coin.  Both are tasked with recruiting and then retaining students, providing just enough resources to keep the income flowing in to the university.  Tuition dollars, after all, are the lifeblood of any institution of higher education.  Both offices have the responsibility to keep the dollars flowing in.

As prospective students apply to the university, they send their applications to the office of admissions, naturally.  And when  they apply for financial aid around the same time, their applications for aid are processed by the office of financial aid.  So, it seems, in some ways that the two are separate, and most colleges like to help create the image that admissions decisions are completely separate from financial aid decisions.

Believe me, they are not.

Only one group of colleges can make any claim that the two decisions are separate:  those practicing “need blind” admissions.  These colleges are generally very wealthy with large endowments, and their number is quite small.  I’ll come back to this exception in a moment.  But suffice it to say that the financial aid and admissions offices must work together if they are to ensure the continuity and adequacy of the institution’s income stream.

Both the admissions and financial aid offices start the process with an annual budget–an amount of money that can be used for financial aid

Some of this budget is “hard” money (interest income  from endowed scholarships), but the overwhelming majority of financial aid is given in the form of discounts off the price of tuition.  Colleges may call these “grants” or “scholarships,” but internally colleges discuss their “discount rate,” or the average discount off the tuition sticker price the will offer in a given year.

A large percentage of the financial aid budget goes to fund currently enrolled students.  Most (but not all) colleges distribute their aid budgets to ensure that current students can continue their progress toward their degrees.  Keep in mind that any individual’s financial need can change from year to year, or even from semester to semester.  In order to retain students, perhaps 75% or more of the total financial aid budget goes to continuing students.

Admissions officers try to read your application without prejudice.  But admissions folks have clues regarding a family’s ability to pay.  Most applications ask whether you plan to apply for financial aid.  If you check “no,” then you are considered a full-pay student.  In addition, colleges review family background.  If the father is a surgeon and the mother an attorney (or a plumber and a waitress, respectively) admissions officers make some plausible assumptions about ability to pay.

Once the admissions office has made a decision on which students to admit, the director will submit the entire list to the financial aid office for review.  The financial aid office compares the aggregate financial need of the entire class with the amount of aid available for incoming freshmen.  If the need far exceeds the dollars available, financial aid will kick the list back to admissions with the comment, “if we admit this class, we’ll go broke–go back to the drawing board.”

If this occurs, then the admissions office begins another review applications, focusing on those kids who are “on the bubble,” or who are borderline admissions cases.  Needy students on the borderline will be rejected, and replaced with students who didn’t quite make the cut–but who can pay full price. This process will continue until the admissions office can resubmit the list, and the financial aid office is satisfied that the institution will over-commit itself.

Now let’s look at the small number of colleges who claim that their admissions process is “need blind.” These colleges are wealthy.  They not only have a high discount rate, but they also have endowment funds to draw upon, if for some reason the admissions office ends up admitting way too many needy students.  But “need blind” does not mean “need ignorant.”  Experienced admissions staffers know that they cannot admit a freshman class comprised solely of students who need a full tuition scholarship. They have to balance the full-pay students against the full-ride students: even wealthy colleges have budgets that are not infinitely expandable.  Admissions staff at “need blind” colleges simply have a bit more wiggle room.  As I have said, admissions officers do have clues about a student’s ability to pay right on the application, and in this sense, all college admissions processes are “need aware.”

So what conclusions can we draw from this relationship between admissions and financial aid?

First, full-pay students have an admissions advantage over scholarship students at most universities.  This fact is not one that we like to admit, but reality bites, sometimes.

Second, students who need scholarships (or grants) to attend college should consider applying to colleges where they are at the top of the selectivity curve. You do not want to be “on the bubble,” because you either are less likely to be admitted, or your aid package is likely to be less generous than at a college where you are one of the top recruits. To be even more specific, if the middle 50% scores on the ACT for Elmer College is between 24 and 28, the needy student with a 24 will be less desirable than the needy student with a 32.  If you have a 24 ACT and need a full ride, look for colleges that have a middle 50% range of 19-22, and your chances go up for both admission and financial aid.

Mark Montgomery

Educational Consultant

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