Here are some terms used to describe the ways in which colleges may incorporate student financial need into admissions decisions. This generalized information can serve as an introduction to a topic that comprises many shades of gray and is often confusing to families.
NEED-BLIND ADMISSIONS – Students are evaluated and admitted without regard to their financial need. Virtually all public schools fall into this category and many private schools are mostly need-blind, but may use financial need to decide the fate of borderline, wait-listed, international, or transfer students. Additionally, this explanation by Mark Kantrowitz shows how the waters can be muddied by a school’s preference for wealthy students.
Need-blind admissions also doesn’t mean that the admissions is wealth-blind. A college might ignore financial need for low-income students, but then grant an admissions preference for high-income students. Most colleges define need-blind as meaning that financial need has no role in the decision to deny admission to low-income students. As such, financial need is not treated as a negative characteristic for low-income students. But colleges can treat a lack of financial need as a positive characteristic for high-income students and still consider themselves to be need-blind. For example, some need-blind colleges will admit full-pay but borderline candidates or grant wealthier students more attractive financial aid packages.
NEED-AWARE, NEED-SENSITIVE, OR RESOURCE-AWARE ADMISSIONS – A student’s financial need is typically considered in the school’s acceptance decision. Enrollment management techniques are employed as a way to make sure the student body generates a sufficient level of income for the school. If you can pay your own way you are more attractive than a needy applicant, at least on that basis. Consequently, a student who does not need financial aid may have an edge in getting accepted over an otherwise equally qualified student. (“Need-aware” and similar terms are increasingly being used to describe many colleges that self-identify as “need-blind”, in the belief that only schools that ignore financial factors for ALL applicants are truly need-blind.)
FULL-NEED SCHOOL – One that claims to meet the student’s full financial needs, defined as the Cost of Attendance (COA) minus the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). It is worth noting that many families are surprised to learn that the school’s determination of financial need is often lower than the family’s own assessment. Also, the school may decide that a loan “award” will be used to meet all or part of the student’s need.
GAP STUDENT – Student whose financial needs are not fully met by the college. The gap student is at higher risk for dropping out.
ADMIT-DENY ADMISSIONS – What “need-blind” actually means to a student unable to afford the college to which he was admitted. If the school offers insufficient financial aid to cover the gap between the COA and the EFC, the student is effectively “denied” admission.