What Does Need-Blind Really Mean With Financial Aid?

Need-blind, need-aware, EFC...what does it all mean, and could your financial need factor into your college admission decision? Here's what you should know.

Some colleges and universities go out of their way to remove the financial barriers that could prevent a promising applicant from enrolling. For example, at Harvard University, parents with an income of less than $65,000 are not expected to contribute to their children’s tuition. There are many schools that claim to be similarly “need-blind,” meaning that your ability (or inability) to pay for college won’t affect your admission decision—at least in theory.

Defining “need-blind”

A school that claims to have a need-blind admission policy is stating that your ability to pay for your education won’t be a factor in whether you are accepted, waitlisted, or denied admission. It doesn’t mean that they’ll help you meet 100% of your need, but they also won’t deny you admission because you can’t pay. Sounds pretty great, right? It can be, if the school to which you are applying is truly need-blind. But how can you know for sure that your inability to pay won’t sway an admission official one way or the other? If you’ve been waitlisted, how do you know your application won’t get pushed down in the pile below the waitlisted applicants who don’t have financial need? The truth is that it’s impossible to be certain, and that’s what makes the concept of need-blind admission so mercurial and, on occasion, controversial.

Will your EFC affect your admission decision?

Your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, is a number calculated through the FAFSA that estimates your family's financial contribution to your education. Factors that go into that calculation include taxed and untaxed income, assets, benefits, your family size, and the number of your family members who will attend college during the year. Your EFC is not the amount of money that your family has to pay, but schools will use the figure to calculate the amount of federal aid for which you are eligible. Generally, the lower your EFC, the more aid you can expect to receive.

If you’re anything like me, your eyes likely glazed over just now (taxes make me want to take a nap), but your EFC is actually super important. For many applicants, their EFC is much higher than what their families can actually pay and it results in a financial aid package that doesn’t meet 100% of their need. Scholarships and grants can help, but many such students end up having to take out high-interest loans that will haunt them for years to come.

With all of that said, your EFC is one of the things that need-blind schools are claiming they won’t consider when reviewing your application. But it’s important to remember that, in a way, colleges and universities are businesses. They need cash to be flowing in in order to operate. If all the students (or a high percentage of the students) they admit have financial need, they won’t be able to function. That’s why “need-aware” has become a more appropriate designation than “need-blind” for some schools.

Related: All the Important Financial Aid Terms You Need to Know

“Need-blind” vs. “need-aware”

Last year, The George Washington University admitted that their admission officials had waitlisted hundreds of undergraduate applicants because they weren’t able to pay the school’s tuition. Up until this news broke, the school had claimed to be need-blind. “Admissions representatives [at GW] do not consider financial need during the first round of reading applications,” reported The GW Hatchet. “But before applicants are notified, the University examines its financial aid budget and decides which students it can actually afford to admit.”

George Washington now classifies its admission policy as “need-aware,” with the goal of staying within its aid budget allotment while providing the best possible aid packages to admitted students who demonstrate need. The story is a perfect example of schools needing to weigh their budgetary constraints against their admission decisions. I would venture to guess that most colleges and universities aren’t actively trying to prejudice low-income applicants. Rather, they want to be able to deliver the best possible education and college experience they can to their student body, and they may be forced to make some difficult decisions in order to do that.

Will your financial need factor into the admission process?

If you’re applying to a school with a need-blind admission policy, all you can do is trust (or at least hope) that your financial need truly won’t be a factor. In a recent piece for Huff Post College, Bev Taylor of The Ivy Coach took a few jabs at the idea of need-blind admission and offered some advice for college applicants. “If you’re applying to colleges this year and you checked the box on the Common Application that you need financial aid, go to a college’s Net Price Calculator and find out if you even qualify for aid,” said Taylor. “If you don’t qualify, don’t check the box, as you have nothing to gain and plenty to lose. If you do qualify and you need financial aid to pay tuition, you have no choice but to check that box. But that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt your chances of admission. It’s just a fact of life.”

Related: Common Financial Aid Questions Answered by an Insider 

The fact of the matter is that there is no single element of your application that’s guaranteed to get you into college, nor is there one that’s certain to keep you out. Just do your best, let your personality and academic strengths shine through, and don't let a little thing like money stand between you and your dreams.

Are you concerned about how your financial need may play into your college applications? Score all the free money you can with our Scholarship Search tool!

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About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie and CollegeXpress. She holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times, she has been an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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