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Does Indicating Financial Need Impact Admissions Chances?


 

I heard that when applying to college not to say that you need financial aid, but when you get accepted, then go ahead and fill out financial aid information.  Is this correct?  My daughter will be working on her application this summer for early decision. Will stating we are looking for scholarship money decrease our chances of getting in?

Great question. Unfortunately, I have to give my most common answer – it depends. Here are some factors to consider.

Need Blind Admissions

Some colleges and universities are “need blind” in their admissions process. This means admissions decisions are made with NO consideration of a student’s ability to pay or potential financial need.

If your daughter is applying to need blind schools, you don’t need to worry about need affecting her admissions chances.

When Need Matters

Many colleges and universities take an “it depends” position. Need isn’t their primary consideration, but it may become a factor. Here are some examples:

  • A clearly outstanding candidate indicates he will apply for financial aid. This student has grades, test scores, activities, and essays above the typical profile for this college and he meets the criteria for academic scholarships. Need is likely overlooked in admissions because this guy will be a real asset to the school and a probable scholarship recipient.
  • A good student applies to her flagship state university and indicates she expects to apply for financial aid. The admissions office uses the established formula—likely a combination of class rank / GPA and standardized test score—to make a decision. Need never entered into the equation.
  • A marginal candidate at a particular university needs financial aid. The university is “need aware” in its policies (the opposite of need blind) and has already given out significant aid to attract top applicants. The university may choose to waitlist or reject this marginal candidate in favor of another borderline student who is able to pay the full cost with no aid.

You can see there are a variety of factors to consider. Usually the issue of aid doesn’t impact admissions at all. The times when a family’s ability to pay matter tend to involve borderline applicants, those who barely meet that year’s standard for admission. In these cases, colleges and universities are willing to pass on that student in favor of a similar one who can pay the full cost without aid.

New Financial Aid Process May Change the Answer

This fall seniors in the class of 2017 will find the college financial aid process has changed. The timetable for applying for financial aid has been accelerated to bring it more in line with the college application timeline. So instead of applying to college in the fall and waiting until January, February, or March to apply for aid, families will complete the FAFSA and financial aid applications beginning October 1.

This is good new for families.

  • FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) numbers will be based on your 2015 taxes, which are already done. In the past families had to estimate their taxes and submit early in order to “get in line” for institutional grants and aid.
  • Families will know their EFC (expected family contribution) sooner. This is the amount your family is expected to contribute towards your child’s college education on an annual basis. Financial aid will help with expenses that exceed this amount. (Many families discover this total is much higher than expected, so be ready.)
  • Because families will have information sooner, they can better target schools that are a good fit financially (or for scholarship potential.)

But the new timeline for financial aid may eliminate the strategy of applying for admission first, getting accepted, then applying for aid.

Other Considerations

I have a few other ideas on this topic.

First, I’m a rule follower by nature so the suggestion that a student should knowingly mislead a college or university rubs me the wrong way. Over the years I have seen very few students successfully game the system when it came to admission or aid and I have seen many more who got caught by their own omissions (or in some cases outright lies.)

Second, keep in mind that financial aid only covers the gap between your EFC and the cost of attendance. And the most common type of financial aid is a loan. Financial aid is NOT the same as scholarship money. (Financial aid is based on need; scholarships are based on merit / achievement.) So you may be considering all this “strategic timing” just to qualify for some student loans. A student who is seeking scholarship money can best do so by intentionally selecting schools where she will be above average for grades, test scores, and other personal achievements.

Next, you want to apply for financial aid as soon as possible. Under the old system, you couldn’t apply for aid before January 1, so it was possible to get an offer of admission before applying for financial aid. But the new system will not have this time gap. If you wait to apply for aid until your daughter is accepted, you risk missing out on the “good aid”—things like grants and work study which don’t need to be paid back.

Finally, keep in mind that the issue of need rarely impacts the final admission decision. Yes, you might hear a lot of people citing it as the reason their sons or daughters didn’t get in, but that’s because it is easier to attribute rejection to bureaucratic policies than personal inadequacies. In reality, most admissions offices, even those that consider need, are weighing the merit of a students’ application more than their potential for institutional need.

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