Paying for College

Should No-Need Family Answer "Yes" to FinAid Question Anyway?

Question: Based on our financial situation, there is no possibility that our daughter will be eligible for need based financial aid.  From our discussions during some college visits, there is a good chance that she could receive merit based awards.

The Common App asks if she is planning to apply for need based financial aid. Will answering ‘yes’ to this question impact her chance of acceptance? Does she need to apply for need based financial aid in order to be considered for a merit award?  Or do we simply submit a FAFSA?

The merit aid morass is one of the most confusing parts of the already-confusing college admissions process.


At the “need-aware” colleges (those schools that don’t tout themselves as being “need-blind” in all decision making), answering “Yes” to the financial aid question can have a negative impact on admission verdicts for some candidates, but—in your daughter’s case—it most likely will not.  Typically, admission officials at need-aware institutions will rate each applicant without regard to the applicant’s financial requirements, But then—when the fine-tuning phase of the adjudication begins—borderline candidates with financial need could get dumped into the “Reject” pile while borderline candidates without need will stay in the “Admit” stack. However … even if your daughter is a borderline applicant at some of her target colleges, and even if she applies for financial aid, if the calculations show that she will not actually get it, then she will probably be treated as a “no-need” candidate, regardless of what she has indicated on her Common App.  However, when reading through mountains of applications, spotting a “No” response to the financial aid question can put a smile on admission officials’ faces … a smile that may last until the very bottom of the final page and spark thoughts of merit bucks, too.

So in most cases, when parents, like you, are dead certain that there’s no chance of need-based financial aid, there is no reason to apply for it, EXCEPT (and these are important exceptions) …

-A few-and-far-between handful of colleges require financial aid forms for ALL applicants who want to be considered for need-based OR merit aid, even when the merit awards don’t demand financial need.  So you and your daughter should read each college’s instructions carefully (and sometimes it takes a treasure hunt to merely find them!) to see which forms are required for merit-aid aspirants at each of her target schools.

–Some colleges give access to certain loans only to those who have completed the FAFSA, even if the family is ineligible for need-based aid. So if you were planning to take out loans to help cover your daughter’s college costs, it’s worth a phone call to financial aid offices to find out if you will be excluded from any loans without a FAFSA.

-If a family’s situation changes dramatically after a student has applied  as “no-need,” (e.g., a parent loses a job, becomes disabled or even dies) some colleges will not allow students who initially applied as no-need to apply for aid without a waiting period … commonly two years. (Note, however, that financial aid officers can be swayed by hard-luck stories and often have discretion to waive this rule.)

-You may qualify for aid even if you don’t expect to. While, in reality most families who are sure that they won’t qualify for aid are right, there is always a chance you’re your family could be the exception. If there are extenuating circumstances in your financial picture that warrant special consideration, you may want to consult with the finaid folks before bypassing the FAFSA.

The vast majority of merit scholarships do not require financial aid forms and most don’t even require separate applications (although that’s something you’ll need to check on, too, because some do … especially the biggies). So, in most cases, when a student will clearly notqualify for financial aid, it is advisable to answer the aid question on the application with a resigned, if not resounding, “No.”