'Need-Blind' Admissions: Fact or Fiction?

By its very definition, 'need-blind' college admissions is difficult to achieve.

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"Need-blind" admissions. These three words pop up frequently in college information sessions, chat rooms, promotional literature, articles about college access, and discussions about college destinations. They are invoked with a reverence that implies "all is good and right about admissions" for the institutions in question. But what do these words mean?

The term "need-blind," when used in the context of college admissions, suggests that students be considered without regard for a family's financial circumstances. In other words, colleges that make the claim to "need-blind" status seem to be saying, "We look at the academic record, not the bank record, in evaluating candidates."

By its very definition, "need-blind" admissions is difficult to achieve. For example, "need-blind" is an absolute concept that would apply to every candidate in every phase of the selection process, not most of them most of the time. Everything else being equal, each position in the entering class of a "need-blind" institution would be, without exception, as accessible to the child of unemployed parents as it is to the child of a corporate CEO or Hollywood producer.

The "without exception" clause is important here. When exceptions do exist, however few they might be—overt or intuitive—in its admissions deliberations, an institution is no longer "need-blind." Rather, it is "resource-aware." Frequently acknowledged exceptions involve students taken from the wait list, international students, and transfer students.

[Get answers to common questions from international students.]

In yet other, more discrete deliberations, students with financial need might not be admitted if the institution in question does not project a desired return on its investment (ROI). A fundamental, and highly subjective, question asked of any candidate in the selective admissions process is, "If we admit this student, what do we get? What does she or he bring to our campus that will make it a better, more interesting place?" Now, add the prospect of substantial financial need to the picture and the stakes go up: "Will our ROI be commensurate with the funding required for this student to enroll?"

The reality is that such considerations are easily obscured among other critical distinctions (made behind closed doors) involving viable candidates and their courses, grades, extracurricular activities, and essays. Absent any independent audits of an institution's selection process, of which there are none, it is difficult, if not impossible, to know when and how a student's need might be factored into an admissions decision.

[Learn about 4 overlooked ways to pay for college.]

This begs the question, "What are the circumstances under which an institution can establish and sustain need-blind status?"

In order to be truly "need-blind," an institution must be able to offer admission to unlimited numbers of candidates without any knowledge of the individual or collective financial needs of those students until after the offers are made. Any of three factors might make this possible:

1. The demographics of an institution's applicant pool are such that its admissions process is relatively "open" and most of the applicants are admitted, thereby making moot the consideration of need.

2. The institution receives funding from outside sources (state legislature) that enables it to set its fees low enough to make them affordable to most candidates.

3. The institution possesses sufficient wealth (endowment) that it can underwrite the cost of attendance for unlimited numbers of admitted students. Such an institution would, presumably, not be constrained by a fixed budget for financial aid.

[Get tips on how to maximize your financial aid package.]

While many institutions aspire to "need-blind" status, few, if any, have the capacity—and are completely free of strategic entanglements—to consistently achieve it in its purest form. And from a practical point of view, that's okay. The antithesis, "resource-aware" admissions, is arguably a constructive solution in and of itself. It is simply evidence of sound business practices and prudent financial management.

When you think about it, institutions that are "resource-aware" are trying to be prudent stewards of their institutional resources by investing in the students whom they value most.

Be careful, then, about attaching undue importance to assertions being made about "need-blind" admissions or assumptions that might follow regarding "resource-aware" admissions. While the former reflects a desire, if not a commitment, to follow a virtuous course of action in evaluating candidates, it should not be regarded as a matter of moral imperative—nor should it be held up as a determinant of institutional worth.

As you think about possible college destinations, it is important to manage expectations and focus on finding the best fit. Apply to places that value you for what you have to offer and the question of "need-blind" or "resource-aware" admissions will be moot.

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