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Financial Aid for Parents: Does Claiming Financial Need Hurt College Applications?

financial-aid-awardsThere are many factors that students and parents should consider when selecting colleges and universities to apply to. Perhaps the most important factor is if the school offers a good program in the student’s academic area of interest, but the selection process should not end there. With the economy in a years-long slump, financial aid has seldom been more important to families hoping to put their children through college. It is estimated that over 10 million students applied for financial aid in 2011. Financial aid from the college or university a student attends can mean the difference between being able to go to college and needing to enter the job market right out of high school. Many parents are beginning to worry that applying for financial aid will negatively affect their students’ chances of being accepted to the school of their choice, which leads them to making some common mistakes on their applications.

Are Need-Blind Schools A Myth?
A need-blind school is one that does not review the financial status or need of the family when reviewing the student’s admissions application. The student’s application is considered solely on merits such as academic performance in the classroom, scores on standardized tests, extracurricular achievements, and volunteer activities. Students and parents should be realistic about how desirable their application to these schools will be, as these schools are most likely to be very selective about whom they admit. While there are a handful of colleges in the United States that claim to admit students based on merit alone, the vast majority of schools in the U.S. will consider a family’s ability to pay when making their admissions decisions.

Truly Need-Blind Colleges and Institutions
Some of the wealthiest schools in the country, such as Harvard, Dartmouth, and Yale, can afford to be truly need-blind. These schools selectively admit only those students who are the best candidates to their school, regardless of need. However, these schools have enormous endowments and can afford to pay for students who do not pay full tuition; many schools must at least partially consider the probable financial need of a student, even when the student’s financial aid application status is not listed on the admissions application. If a student’s admissions essay casually mentions a summer in the Seychelles, for example, that sends a message to admissions officers that the student may be able to pay full tuition. Often parents will state outright in their application that they’re able to pay full tuition, but this is probably not actually helpful.

Need-Sensitive Schools: A Middle Ground
Some schools are entirely need-blind and others openly review an applicant’s ability to pay for tuition, but others consider themselves mostly need-blind schools. These are schools that may be most concerned with the applicants’ merits, but which will take into account the student’s financial needs if they are sizeable. While some schools may be truly or mostly need blind when considering applicants, some may treat applicants on a wait list differently when it comes to financial need. In fact, the National Association for College Admission Counseling conducted a study in 2008 that showed that about six percent of private schools were need-sensitive for students on their wait list. Admissions departments will often tell you what their policy is regarding financial aid and admissions. One way to ensure a student’s application receives the most favorable review is to apply for early admission. Many schools assess applications without regard to financial need before a certain deadline, so applying within that window may give students who are concerned about their financial need affecting their application the best chance of being accepted.

Applying for the Top Schools
Parents and students alike are deterred from applying for admissions to top schools like Yale, Standard, and Harvard because they believe that they will not be able to pay the tuition and fees at these schools. However, because these wealthy schools may be truly need-blind, they may be able to offer a more attractive financial aid package to students. The cost of tuition should not deter students who want to attend these schools and who have the academic background to thrive at these schools from applying for admissions.

How to Consider Financial Aid Status When Applying
The fact is that admissions departments consider many factors when reviewing a financial aid package. While some will openly consider if a student requires financial aid, grants, and scholarships in order to attend, others may be more subtle about reviewing applicants’ financial need. Students concerned about their financial need affecting their application can apply for early admission, when many colleges maintain a need-blind attitude to application assessment. Parents and students alike can stay realistic about the desirability of their application, and should focus on applying to schools to which they feel acceptance is within reach.

With each school considering financial need in different ways, parents and students may be understandably concerned about how financial need could affect their own applications. The bottom line is that students should apply for the schools that are the best fit for their academic interests. Even schools that may place some emphasis on financial need in admissions decisions will probably not rule out an applicant who is well-qualified based on need alone. It is best to apply for the right schools that are a good fit; a financial aid package will often be provided that helps to make paying for the school more affordable.


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