Paying for College

When "Need Blind" Colleges Ask If You'll Need Aid

Question: The Common Application asks you to indicate on Page 1 whether you will be seeking financial aid. So do the Form 1's for some colleges that I thought were need blind. This means that admissions committees have access to this information when they make decisions (although they don't know how much you'll need). Does this suggest that colleges may not be as "need blind" as they claim to be?

This information is typically not used by admission evaluators in any significant way. Occasionally, it may make admission officers curious. That is, they see an applicant who had two parents in snazzy-sounding corporate jobs who check that “yes” box, and ponder what mysterious truths lurk below the surface; while the daughter of a single-mom/nurse’s aide might indicate “no.” (Adcom members might fleetingly wonder if the latter was an error or if the young woman had a special source of assistanceâ€"a kindly maiden aunt or Sugar Daddy, perhaps?). Seriously, though, once evaluators get past that page one, there’s not much thought given to how the aid question was answered.

Nonetheless, we advise Common App candidates to make two sets of copies of that first page: one with the “yes” or “no” box marked for the colleges that are not need-blind, and one that leaves it blank for those that are. However, when it comes to allegedly need-blind institutions asking on their own applications, you should do their bidding and respond. Chances are, the question is asked for processing purposes in order to be sure that appropriate forms have been filed in the financial aid office.

Thus, when such an institution insists they are “need blind,” what they are really saying is, “Even though we know you are asking for money, it isn’t going to influence our decision.” Most of the time this is true, though there is undoubtedly a bit of tweaking (and peeking) going on at some schools, especially during that difficult period when the very final decisions are made and borderline candidates are tipped in or out of the admit pile.

One might argue, of course, that those finaid “yes” or “no” responses might influence admission officials at least subconsciously. While we can’t deny the possibility, the question this raises is “In what direction will they be swayed?” If you’ve read A is For Admission, Michele Hernandez’s account of her four years as a Dartmouth admissions pro, you can’t have missed her repeated insistence that admission folks tend to scorn those applicants who’ve had an easy life and a silver spoon, while they applaud the similar successes of the less advantaged candidates. While Hernandez may belabor that point excessively (and perhaps not fully accurately) there is at least a grain of truth in the fact that, for every admission official who may think, “Gee, this kid looks pretty strong and won’t cost us a nickel because he’s a no-need. I like that,” there’s another bleeding heart who’s saying, “Wow. This guy comes from a family that requires aid, but he’s still managed to climb to the top of his class and does hours and hours of community service, to boot.”

In other words, the pros and cons of checking those aid boxes will work out to a wash, more or less. With all the things there are to worry about on the admissions roller-coaster ride, this isn’t one of them.