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Need-Blind vs Need-Aware and Meeting Full Financial Need

When it comes time to look into financial aid for college, you’re very likely to come across three terms that seem simple enough but actually aren’t so cut-and-dry. They are: need-blind, need-aware, and meeting full financial need.

Many colleges and universities don’t always provide a full picture of their financial aid policies.


The uncomfortable truth is that financial need can impact whether a student is admitted into an institution. With the cost of tuition and student loans rising by the year, you should be equipped with the knowledge to read between the lines.

So, let’s clarify a few of those commonly-used terms and frequently asked questions surrounding the need-blind admissions, need-aware admissions, and meeting full financial need.

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Need-Blind vs Need-Aware Colleges

Both need-blind and need-aware are financial aid policies that define whether or not an applicant’s ability to pay, or financial need, for college will be considered when making admission decisions. 

  • Need-blind colleges will make admission decisions without consideration of the applicant’s ability to pay. 
  • Need-aware colleges will make admissions decisions with the applicant’s ability to pay taken into account.

Now, before you decide that you’ll only be searching for need-blind colleges, consider this: because need-blind schools do not take your finances into account when admitting you, they are often less prepared to meet your full financial need without adding unrealistic loan options or work-study. 

On the other hand, while need-aware colleges do factor in your financial need, doing so often allows them to meet full financial need because they have the full picture of your financial situation. Need-aware schools sometimes incite controversy over the concern that they only admit students who can pay in full or bring more money to the table. 

However, we encourage you to remember that need-aware schools can offer you a favorable financial package, as opposed to a need-blind school that may admit you without the proper financial aid package, leaving you unable to attend.


What Does Meeting Full Financial Need Mean?

Colleges that meet full need are sure to offer enough financial aid to fill the gap between cost of attendance and a family’s SAI (Student Aid Index). Your family’s SAI is calculated based on the information collected in the FAFSA or CSS Profile. So, if your SAI is $20,000 a year and a college charges $70,000 a year, then a college that meets full financial need will ensure that you receive enough federal, state, and institutional aid to cover the $50,000 gap. 

For more on the new FAFSA and SAI, check out the blog post Inside the Financial Aid Process: A Guide for Students and Parents.

Some colleges, known as no-loan colleges, offer financial aid packages that include only work-study, scholarships, or grants. This ensures that you and your parent/guardian will not need to take out any additional loans for out-of-pocket costs.


Understanding a College's Financial Aid Policy

These financial aid policies only apply to a small number of schools: selective colleges that are able to reject qualified applicants. Always start by looking at the school’s website to explore policies surrounding awarding financial aid. If that information isn’t listed online, make an appointment, or arrange a call with the financial aid office. 

If there’s no mention of being need-blind, but they say they meet students’ full need, they are likely using a need-aware policy to admit some students. If a college says they follow a need-blind policy but does not explicitly state that they meet full need, you may be awarded the money you need to attend that school. 

So, let’s list out the potential admission policies.

  • Need-Blind Admissions + Meets Full Financial Need
  • Need-Blind Admissions + Does Not Meet Full Financial Need
  • Need-Aware Admissions + Meets Full Financial Need
  • Need-Aware Admissions + Does Not Meet Full Financial Need

Keep in mind that individual college policies are likely to vary, possibly even adopting different policies for domestic versus international students. Some colleges may even take an approach that is a combination of both need-blind and need-aware.


Asking the Right Questions

As a student and parent, it’s important to understand that very few colleges have unlimited funds and rely on tuition revenue to operate. The vast majority of institutions have to operate on a financial aid budget, meaning that the average students pays a certain amount and the admissions process is managed to meet their budget. When you meet with the financial aid office, ask questions like: “Do you manage a financial aid budget, and how?” and “What is the average amount of debt your students’ graduate with? What is the average scholarship award?”


The Bottom Line

The bottom line is, whether you’re considering a need-blind or need-aware college, the financial aid puzzle will be different at each institution. At first glance, a need-blind policy may seem appealing...but is it really? Under either policy type, if you are a great candidate that requires a lot of need, you should feel confident that the schools who admit you see and value your potential.

We hope this article has given you enough information to arm you with the knowledge and confidence you need to ask the right questions. Remember, doing the research now can help you to maximize your financial aid offer!

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This article was originally published on May 21, 2020. It was updated on September 8, 2023 for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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