Many colleges are “need blind” for admissions, meaning that when the college makes an admission decision, it does not consider whether or not the student can pay the cost of attendance. Sometimes this information is on the college website, or students and parents may hear about it during college tours or information sessions. The College of the Holy Cross recently changed from need blind admissions system to a “need aware” admission system. Other colleges have done this in the past, including Wesleyan University and Haverford College a few years ago. At first glance, changing to a need aware admissions system may sound like a negative, but it actually is not such a negative if the college also meets 100% of need.
When colleges are “need-aware,” they do not take need into account for most of the admitted students; but then, after some number of students have been chosen for admission, the college does consider need for some last percentage of students. In the case of Holy Cross last admission cycle, it reviewed its early decision applicants on a need-blind basis, then it chose most of the regular decision admits on a need-blind basis, only looking at ability to pay for the last approximately 4.5% of regular decision admits. For the most part it was need-blind, but not entirely.
The reason to consider need at all in this circumstance is so a college can meet 100% of need for all admitted students without having to deplete its endowment in order to meet that 100% of need. Colleges do not HAVE to meet 100% of need, so doing so is a very good thing, even if the college has to be need aware to do so.
What exactly is “need?” “Need” refers to demonstrated financial need. Demonstrated financial need is not what people might actually believe they need in order to pay for college, but what their “need” is, calculated using one or two financial aid applications: the FAFSA (a federal form) or the CSS Profile (an additional form that is used by some colleges). First, the family’s “expected family contribution” is determined using one of these forms. The full cost of attendance for a college, minus the calculated “expected family contribution” is called “need.”
If a student has need based on one of these calculations, then one question is whether or not the college will make sure that the student is offered sufficient financial aid to cover the need. Meeting need can be in the form of student loans (up to $5500 freshman year) or grants. A college that always meets students’ full need through financial aid can then say that it meets 100% of need. If a family has need, whether or not the college meets 100% of need is a key question – and often more important than whether or not the college is need blind.
There are very few colleges that meet 100% of need and are need blind – perhaps a couple of dozen. Other colleges could do one of the following:
- They do not meet 100% of need and are not need blind;
- They meet 100% of need, but are need-aware;
- They meet 100% of need, but are not need blind; or
- They are need blind, but do NOT meet 100% of need – they “gap” students.
Which policies a college uses can result in very different costs for families. Thus, if a family has need, there are 2 key questions to ask: 1) is the college need blind? (which affects admissions); and 2) does the college meet 100% of need? (which affects the ability of the student to attend). If a student is admitted but cannot attend due to unmet need, then the admission is of little use. This is why being need aware but meeting full need might be kinder to students than being need blind, but gapping (not meeting full need).
To illustrate the difference between meeting 100% of need and gapping, here is an example. If a college has a total cost of attendance of $70,000 per year and a student has an expected family contribution of $20,000 per year, then the student’s need is $50,000.
$70,000 (Cost of Attendance) – $20,000 (Expected Family Contribution) = $50,000 (Need)
A college that meets 100% of need (whether or not it takes need into account for admissions) will make sure the $50,000 is covered by financial aid through some combination of loans to the student (no more than $5500 freshman year), grants, or work-study money. The family then must come up with the expected family contribution, in this case, $20,000.
A college that is need blind but does not meet full need – a college that “gaps” students – might choose to offer less than $50,000 in aid; for example, perhaps $20,000 (or less!) – leaving a gap of $30,000. That leaves the family having to come up with not only the expected family contribution, here $20,000, but the expected family contribution plus the “gap,” in this example $20,000 + $30,000. It is then the family’s problem to figure out how to come up with $50,000 rather than $20,000 – or the student can choose to attend a different college.
If a family has need, the ideal situation is for the college to be need blind and meet 100% of need. However, not all college endowments allow them to be so generous. For families with need, a college being “need aware” and meeting 100% of need is the next-best policy.
Jona Jacobson launched jj College Admission Advising LLC, an independent educational consulting business based out of Rochester, NY, to provide prospective college students and their parents with the knowledge and individual attention necessary to make informed decisions regarding the student’s college application process. For a deeper explanation of what need blind and need aware admissions really means, check out Jona’s thorough discussion on the topic on the Tests and the Rest podcast.