Colleges Where Need for Aid Can Hurt Admission Odds

See which schools are most likely to admit and you and give you financial aid.

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Most colleges admit all qualified applicants but can't afford to give enough financial aid to all the students who need it. Some of these colleges divvy up their limited funds equally, and end up giving many students less than they need. Others give lots of scholarships to the top students and underfund the rest.

A handful of private colleges are trying a different strategy. These schools promise that all regularly admitted students—but not necessarily wait-listed or international students—will get enough aid so that they can graduate with little or no debt. (Remember, however, that each school calculates a prospect's need for aid differently. Some may decide your family can afford more than you'd like.)

[Related story: How Colleges Decide How Much Aid Students "Need"]

To keep their financial aid budgets from soaring, these colleges limit the number of needy students they admit, which means they reject some otherwise qualified students who can't afford their $40,000-plus price tags.

Typically, admissions officers at "need-aware" colleges read through applications and rank the students in terms of attractiveness to the college. They usually admit the top students without regard to incomes. As the officers move down their lists, they start to look at their financial aid budget to see whether they can afford to fully fund those applicants. Colleges such as Reed, Carleton, and Gettysburg say that they accept at least 90 percent of their students on merit and consider income only for the last few seats in each class.

Audrey Smith, dean of enrollment at Smith College in Northhampton, Mass., explains that her school's admissions officers "take out of the class and place on the wait list those with high levels of financial need that are near the bottom of the pool. Thus, we are need blind until the very end of the process, and at the point we are exercising need-sensitivity, we are not looking exclusively at need but at other factors as well."

Aid and admissions officers at these "need-aware" schools argue that their policy is better for students than what is sometimes called "admit-deny," as in admit a student but deny sufficient financial aid. Lucia Whittelsey, director of financial aid at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, says that her college "was need blind but practiced admit-deny" in the late 1980s. "It was a terribly painful policy to administer," she says. "We decided that it was better to meet the full need of admitted students rather than have students here whose only option was to bury themselves in debt."

In addition, some college officials say that being "need aware" allows them to give some needy students an edge in admissions.

Naturally, some "need-aware" colleges end up enrolling very few low-income students. But as this chart shows, many "need-aware" colleges enroll many more low-income students than colleges that claim to admit students solely on their qualifications.

[Related story: Generous Schools That Claim to Be "Need Blind" in Admissions ]

Generous colleges that say they consider a student's financial need when deciding on admissions.

College State % of students receiving Pell Grants in 2007-08* Acceptance
Yield (% of all admitted students who enroll) % of fall 2008 freshmen in top tenth of their high school graduating class
Smith College MA 26% 48% 36% 64%
Mount Holyoke College MA 20% 53% 32% 62%
Occidental College CA 19% 39% 21% 65%
Bryn Mawr College PA 17% 49% 35% 65%
Pitzer College CA 15% 22% 29% 51%
Reed College OR 15% 32% 19% 65%
Trinity College CT 13% 42% 28% 50%
Macalester College MN 13% 41% 23% 66%
Oberlin College OH 12% 33% 34% 69%
Carleton College MN 11% 27% 36% 74%
Gettysburg College PA 11% 38% 33% 66%
Tufts University MA 10% 26% 33% 85%
Connecticut College CT 10% 37% 29% 60%
Colgate University NY 9% 24% 33% 65%
Scripps College CA 9% 43% 30% 70%
Bates College ME 8% 29% 35% 53%
Lafayette College PA 8% 37% 25% 65%
Colby College ME 7% 31% 32% 61%
Washington University in St. Louis MO 7% 22% 30% 96%
Average   12.6% 35.4% 30.0% 65.9%
* Generally awarded to students from families earning less than about $45,000/year

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