The Glossary: need blind

There are currently around 100 colleges and universities in the U.S. that claim to offer need-blind admissions. Need blind sounds really great, but what exactly does it mean?

Need blind means that the school's admissions staff don't take your financial situation into account when they consider whether to accept or deny you. Your ability to pay isn't a factor. It does not mean that they don't know anything about your financial situation. Even though the Admissions and Financial Aid departments are separate, need-blind or not, the admissions officers at need-blind schools can still see whether you checked the box that you will be applying for aid. They can still see where you go to high school and make some assumptions about that. If you give any hints about your financial situation in your application essays or activities list, of course they can see that. But they've pledged not to make your financial situation be a factor in your admission. That sounds great, and it's the way things ought to be. Schools do this to signal that they want a financially diverse student population and to try to not scare away applicants based on the price tag. It works, too. Need blind schools tend to attract more diversity.

But there's a catch, and it's a really important one: just as the financial aid office doesn't affect the admissions office's decisions, the admissions office doesn't affect the financial aid office's decisions. Getting accepted to a need-blind school doesn't mean that they will meet all your financial need. It's normal and common to be accepted to a need-blind school but get a financial aid package that doesn't cover the cost. In other words, you're in...but still can't afford it.

Fairness is often at the heart of discussions about need blind admissions, but fairness is tricky. From the student's point of view, it feels really unfair to know that you may be denied to a school that's a good match just because you need financial aid. It feels like the schools are discriminating against people who aren't rich. If two students were to have identical applications, except one needs financial aid and the other doesn't, then they should get the same decision. Right?

But to schools, it can feel really unfair to accept students knowing that they won't get a financial aid award to make the school affordable. Banks aren't supposed to give home mortgages to people they know can't afford to pay back the loans, so why would colleges--which are as expensive as houses--tell someone to attend if they know they can't afford it? I've heard admissions staff talk about feeling really uneasy when they accept someone who gets "gapped" (that is, there's a gap between how much aid they need and how much aid they get) and still comes to the school. Where is the money coming from? Are they taking on too many loans? Are they going to have to leave without graduating because of money?

To many high school students, getting denied to their dream school would feel better than getting accepted but not being able to go because of money.

(For a deeper dive on the complexity and controversy over need blind, check out this article about a need-blind school that stopped being a need-blind school.) 

If financial aid is going to be a major factor for your final decision, then it's good to pay attention to need-blind schools. By enacting that policy, they're letting you know that they want students who may not be able to afford it without aid, and they're committed to trying to make it work. But need blind isn't your top priority. What you should really be looking for is schools that are "full need." That means they meet everyone's financial need, no matter how much it is. Keep in mind, as always, that the school's definition of what you need may differ from your family's definition. And meeting need usually includes loans, which have to be paid back. But in the big picture, a school that meets 100% of your financial need is going to be fairly affordable, even though there may be some sacrifices. Here is a list of schools who report meeting full need.

Obviously the best thing is a school that is both need blind and meets full need. But think about what that means: if they end up accepting a class where none of the students can afford to pay anything, then the school is committed to covering all the costs for everyone. There are very few schools who can afford that risk. Not surprisingly, those schools are very hard to get into. For one, they tend to be older schools with great reputations--that's how they were able to get all those donations and build up a huge endowment over time. And also, because a need-blind school that is also a full-need school is so attractive to so many people, they get a lot of applications. There are around 35 schools like this, and you've already heard of a lot of them--places like Harvard and Yale. Here is a map of them.

Is there another term you'd like to see in The Glossary? Let me know, and I'll explain it!

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