We don't think we'll qualify for need-based aid. Do we apply anyway?

Question: We are a family that is unlikely to qualify for need-based financial aid. We are getting mixed signals as to whether we should apply for it any way. One camp says: there's money for middle class families and you should apply and see what happens. The other camp says: Applicants that can pay full freight may have an advantage and should say so on the application. Who is right? My daughter is a junior and is most interested in some of the top liberal arts colleges such as Amherst, Williams and Wesleyan.

When it comes to questions with no easy answers, this is right up there with the one about the chicken and the egg. But here's how I suggest you proceed:

A: NEED-BLIND COLLEGES (which includes all the schools you've named)

1) Do the Net Price Calculators for Amherst, Williams, and Wesleyan. (Or at least do the first two, and if they come out very similar, don't bother with the third.) Here's the link for Amherst's:

The aim here is to find out if you really won't qualify for any aid or if you'll probably qualify for some aid.

2) If you DO qualify for aid, I suggest that you apply for aid at the need-blind colleges, such as those you've named.

3) If you clearly DON'T qualify for aid (i.e., your estimated EFC is significantly above the cost of attendance at even the priciest colleges) then you should not bother applying for aid and should tick the “No aid" box on applications.

Exceptions: IF you have a second child who will be in college when your daughter is still in college or IF either you or your spouse holds a job with fluctuating income or IF you think that either one of you may lose or change jobs in the next five years for ANY reason, then you should still apply for aid at the need-blind colleges. (Most colleges impose a waiting-period on aid applications from students who initially applied as “no need." Typically that period is two years but some schools prohibit ALL aid applications from a student who initially applied as no-need.)

Your daughter can create two different versions of the Common Application: one where she answers the aid question with a “YES" and the other with a “NO."


1) If you qualify for aid and feel that this aid (even if it isn't much) will make a major difference in your household stress level, you should always apply for aid.

2) If you qualify for aid but feel that receiving this aid will NOT make a big difference in your stress level, then DON'T apply for aid at any need-aware college that you feel might be a “Reach" for your daughter or at the upper end of the “Realistic" range. (Carleton, Tufts, Washington U. and Colby might be examples of such places.) Note, however, that occasionally colleges require the FAFSA for non-need-based merit scholarships. (NYU is one such school that jumps to mind which might end up on your daughter's list.) So read the fine print on Web sites, once your daughter's college list is finalized.

3) If you qualify for aid, DO apply for it at the need-aware schools that are very likely to admit your daughter anyway.

This advice, as I've warned you, isn't gospel truth. I know, too, that it sounds confusing … but confusion is par for the course in most aspects of the admissions process, so get used to it. ;)

(posted 5/5/2012)