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The Truth About Need-Aware Admissions

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Now is the time for high school juniors to begin developing a well-balanced list of target, reach, and likely schools to apply to this fall, and one of the most significant, and often times limiting, factors that families and students consider when deciding where to apply is cost.

With dwindling endowments and rising tuition rates, schools are struggling to bridge the gap between student enrollment and funds for cutting edge research, faculty hires, and state-of-the-art facilities. This has led to some schools converting to a "need aware" or "need sensitive" admissions policy. This means that ability to pay tuition, without the need for aid, is factored into the overall admissions decision for applicants.

In 2012, the average student loan debt of recent graduates was $27,253. Student and parent borrowing for college tuition is rising, and high borrowing coupled with stagnant funding has forced some schools to come up with creative ways to fill this gap.

Some institutions have been putting caps on the amount students are allowed to borrow while others, like Grinnell College, are turning some student grants into loans as a way to save funds and still meet full need. This puts a heavier financial burden on students and their families.

That said, it's no secret that a college education pays off. Bachelor's degree holders, on average, earn over $1 million dollars more over a lifetime than someone with just a high school diploma. It's also no secret that college is expensive, and some students find it hard to graduate without significant financial aid.

Most recently Wesleyan University announced it would no longer honor a need-blind admissions policy, raising concerns among the students and faculty about how this would affect campus diversity. Knox College, a need-blind, private liberal arts college in Illinois, also recently held a forum to discuss the school's struggling finances and how to approach the possibility of need-sensitive admissions and accessibility for all students, regardless of financial background. And while Grinnell announced this weekend that it would stay need-blind for now, there is the possibility that this policy could change in the next two years.

With many institutions moving towards this policy, high-performing, low-income students may be left in the cold, and the question becomes how do schools continue to serve students regardless of socioeconomic status while still maintaining a sustainable financial model? "Need aware" can evoke a negative connotation, but it's not as detrimental to admissions models as some may think.

How does this admissions policy work?

When determining financial aid packages for students, schools try to meet full need. This doesn't necessarily mean they're providing full scholarships to everyone admitted. Many times "meeting need" means a combination of scholarships, grants, and loans, with the latter being the most controversial.

Schools with large endowments are usually able to meet the need between what a family is expected to contribute and a financial aid package. But the promise of "need-blind" consideration can be sticky, with some schools not able to meet every student's full financial need. This is called gapping.

To make things more complicated, there are varying types of need-blind policies. Schools can either be need-blind and meet full need of all applicants, need-blind but only meet some need, or need-blind and meet full need for only U.S. applicants, which means the ability to pay will be considered for international students.

Most public colleges and universities are need-blind and can meet varying amounts of financial aid. However, there are few private colleges that are truly need-blind, leaving many students to wonder where they will fall in the admissions pile if they need a significant financial aid package.

So what does this mean for college applicants?

The reality is that most private schools have been practicing need-aware admissions for some time now. Tufts University went need-aware in 2009 and Smith College in Massachusetts has been need-sensitive for waitlist and international applicants since 1992. While more schools are announcing that they will be considering students' ability to pay in their decisions, it doesn't mean applicants will be accepted solely because they can pay full tuition. A need-aware policy can actually benefit students who are applying for aid in that they could receive better packages than under a need-blind approach if admitted.

Many of these schools that practice need-aware admissions only do it for a portion of the entering class, ensuring that a majority of spots are filled on a need-blind basis. Wesleyan will only be considering the ability to pay for the last 10 percent of spots for an entering class, so the process will not be completely need-aware. Schools do this so they are able to provide better financial aid packages for everyone.

Applicants will still be evaluated primarily on their academic performance, test scores, extracurricular activities, and recommendations, among other factors, so there won't be unqualified applicants being accepted simply because they didn't apply for aid.

One of the biggest concerns for students at Wesleyan, and other similar institutions, is how a need-aware policy would affect campus diversity. High-performing students from low-income families and international students applying for aid could, theoretically, be shut out.

However, a need-blind policy isn't the only way to guarantee a diverse campus. Many of these applicant pools are already self-selecting (meaning students are applying because they think they have a chance of getting in), so while a change in the admissions policy may alter the applicant pool slightly, it won't be by a significant amount. And as I said before, many factors go into building a class, so qualified applicants, even those from lower-income and international families, will still apply if they feel they could be admitted.

Regardless if you're applying for financial aid or not, juniors in the process of developing a balanced college list should make note of schools that have a need-blind or need-aware admissions policy in order to accurately assess chances of admission. If you plan on applying for financial aid, make sure you know if the schools on your list guarantee full-need, some-need, and what percentage of financial aid packages are usually made up of scholarships, grants, and loans.

For international students, this is especially relevant. The ability to pay is most often considered when evaluating international applicants, so it's important for these students to know whether or not the school they're applying to adheres to this policy.

Tuition can often be a limiting factor for students applying to college because some may assume they cannot afford to attend certain institutions. This is why it's important to do your homework. Some of the country's most "expensive" educations can also come with a guarantee of meeting full-need if you're admitted. When researching schools, be sure to assess the cost to attend versus the net price. You can look up schools on College Navigator and see the average net price per student based on family income.

So don't let the talk of "need-aware" admissions policies deter you too much from applying to the schools that you think will be a best-fit. At IvyWise I counsel students on how to make informed decisions when developing a balanced college list, and while need-blind and need-aware policies are hot topics right now, it's only one piece of the admissions puzzle.