Does Financial Need Impact College Admissions Chances?

Experts discuss if applicants who need financial aid are evaluated differently than students who don't.

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Times are tough and tuition costs are sky rocketing. Now more than ever, college applicants are in need of financial aid in order to attend school. In this week's column, our experts will tell you whether requesting aid can affect your chances of getting into the school of your dreams.

Q: Are applicants who need financial aid evaluated differently?

A: Need-blind admissions depends on the college.

Stacey Kostell, director of admissions, University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign

Whether your financial situation is considered during application review actually depends on the college. At Illinois, we do not take ability to pay into the review. However, not all institutions are considered need-blind, meaning ability of pay may be a factor. Many universities, including Illinois, follow the same review process for everyone and the members of the review committees do not know the financial status of anyone. Once students are admitted they can then work with the financial aid office should they need assistance.

See all of Stacey's expert admissions advice.

[Get 5 hints to compare financial aid award letters.]

A: Avoid being a borderline admit.

James Montoya, vice president of higher education, The College Board

The evaluation process is likely to be the same, but financial need may influence whether an applicant is ultimately admitted and funded or placed on an admissions waiting list, a financial aid waiting list, or even denied admission. Applicants in the bottom portion of the admit pool—"borderline admits"—with high financial need are most vulnerable. Applicants with high financial needs who possess strong academic credentials and/or special talents are better positioned to receive financial aid. While you likely can't change your family's financial situation, you can work diligently to be a strong college applicant.

See all of James's expert admissions advice.

[Consider taking these 6 steps to boost your financial aid.]

A: Colleges like rich students.

Suzanne Shaffer, founder, Parents Countdown to College Coach

Unfortunately colleges love to attract wealthy students. Why? Because they consider them better prepared because of their advantages and they use them to underwrite the college costs for those who cannot afford to pay. Students who need financial aid might get passed over when compared with one who does not. This is especially true with the more elite colleges where admission is extremely competitive. Don't let this discourage you, however, if you don't fall into the "rich" category. There are plenty of colleges that give out huge amounts of financial aid to deserving students.

See all of Suzanne's expert admissions advice.

[See which colleges claim to meet full need.]

A: The answer is: "It depends."

Hannah Serota, college counselor, McLean School of Maryland

Most of the wealthiest colleges, those with enormous endowments, take pride in making sure that admissions decisions are completely separate from financial aid decisions. For those colleges, all applicants are evaluated without regard to ability to pay.

But that is not the case at the majority of colleges. Most institutions must work hard to remain within their financial aid budgets. For these colleges, something called "preferential packaging" comes into play. Highly desirable students, those who exceed the institutional averages in test scores and/or grades tend to be packaged more favorably with more scholarship and less self help (loans and work study).

Middle-of-the-pack applicants may be given slightly less scholarship and more self help. And those who find themselves at the bottom of the accepted student group may find their financial aid packages to be mostly self help with little scholarship aid. What this means is that your financial aid package from a reach college may not be as attractive as the package from one of your target, or well matched, colleges. If you are looking for generous scholarship aid, you need to look at colleges and universities where your academic profile is strong compared to that of the average admitted student.

See all of Hannah's expert admissions advice.

[Learn more about improving your college admissions odds.]

Visit the Unigo Expert Network for 15 more answers about need-based admissions and to have your own questions answered.