What Need-Blind Needs

Need-blind admissions is a policy whereby an applicant’s ability to pay for college is not considered during the admissions process. When an institution is known to have a need-blind admissions policy, it signals a commitment to achieving greater diversity in the applicant pool and enrolled at that college or university. It is perceived as a mechanism to increasing access and opportunity to all qualified applicants regardless of their financial circumstances. Similar to  the Common App and early admissions practices, need-blind as a policy assists with an institution’s image and competitiveness throughout the admissions process.

But is this case? While an institution’s need-blind policy may be well-intentioned, it doesn’t always play out in practice. This misalignment highlights why there are many who are skeptical or critical of need-blind-admissions practices. On the one hand, need-blind is seen as a commitment to equity and access. On the other hand, it is regarded as a practice that ironically undermines an institution’s equity and diversity efforts. Acting affirmatively to consider socio-economic status and financial aid to expand access is the way to bridge this divide. This post will explore these aspects of the need-blind admissions policy, its pros and cons, the institutional integrity of the policy, and its place in the current admissions landscape.

Need-blind admissions surfaced in its current form around the same time  colleges and universities were struggling financially (to a greater extent than many are today). Bowen, Kurzweil, & Tobin (2005) explain that need-blind admissions began taking its current shape in the 1950’s and 1960’s when the Overlap Group, comprised of 23 East Coast colleges, formed a common understanding of expected family contribution for applicants who were accepted at more than one of these institutions.1 The need-blind policy came into practice as a way to reassure lower-income applicants that regardless of the institution’s financial situation, the applicant’s ability to pay won’t be considered in their admissions decisions.

Disconnect between Admissions and Aid

Yet, it is this aspect of need-blind admissions that is particularly misleading. Need-blind ensures that applicant’s ability to pay isn’t explicitly considered in the admissions process, though that doesn’t discount admissions officers being able to derive a student’s socio-economic status through other aspects of the application, such as the personal statement, letters of recommendation, or the applicant’s zip code. Perhaps another significant component is the ways in which admissions officers take into account the achievements of applicants that are more available to affluent students (extracurriculars, service trips vs. working nights and raising siblings).

What the separation between the office of admissions and office of financial aid tells us is that even though an applicant’s socio-economic status won’t hinder the possibility of being admitted, it could still potentially impact an applicant’s ability to matriculate due to insufficient aid.2 This practice is known as admit-deny or gapping. The New York Times, notes, “The practice – ‘gapping’, or more bluntly, ‘admit-deny’ – comes as a surprise to students who think that need-blind admissions has something to do with providing financial aid. If a college calculates that a student’s need (price minus ability to pay equals need) is $30,000, it might offer only $15,000 in an aid package, leaving families with difficult choices — to make up the rest with private bank loans, go to a less expensive school, or even postpone education.” Returning to Hoxby & Avery (2013), many high-achieving, low-income students don’t know that the most selective schools are often the cheapest option due to maintaining full-need aid policies.

Nick Anderson’s piece, Why ‘Need-Blind’ Is the Wrong Goal for College Admissions, acknowledges that there’s no question about a school’s commitment to increasing access by practicing need-blind admissions. However, “There’s a passiveness to the term that implies, quite wrongly, that we can address the issue of college accessibility simply by turning a blind eye to student’s financial circumstances.” Instead, institutions should continue to be proactive in recruiting more high-achieving, low-income students, and they should strive for increased transparency with the information and resources they are sharing with potential applicants about the admissions process and paying for college.

This kind of access to information, quality information, has been shown to be crucial to increasing access to post-secondary opportunities. In an earlier blog post, we’ve previously cited Hoxby & Avery (2013) where they show that high-achieving, low-income students aren’t applying to selective colleges because they seem unaffordable. They also highlight an information gap which is explored in more depth in Hoxby & Turner (2013) in which they propose and carry out a low cost innovation – the Expanding College Opportunities (ECO) Project – that provided customized information to high-achieving, low-income students. They found that the ECO project had a positive impact on the number of high-achieving, low-income applicants who applied to selective colleges. What these papers highlight is that information matters and that a lack of or a gap in information negatively affects applicants in a whole host of ways, chief among them whether an applicant sees applying to a selective college as within his or her reach.

An aspect of this information gap that has become more apparent in recent news is the confusion created in the admissions process through jargon or ambiguous information. One example of how the ECO project addressed this confusion is that the it parsed out the difference between an institution’s sticker price and net price. Sticker price is a college’s listed price of attendance. Net price is what it actually costs a student to attend college after loans, grants, and work-study are considered.3

Need-blind admissions and its relationship with meeting financial need is one of the most crucial connections in the admissions process that if lost because of the information could prove detrimental but if clearly conveyed could bolster the efforts towards making applying to college more equitable.

Georgetown’s Efforts

Nearly forty years ago, Georgetown, decided to admit students on a need-blind basis and to meet the full demonstrated financial need of all admitted domestic undergraduates.  This commitment—a direct outgrowth of the centuries-old Jesuit tradition of providing access to higher education—propelled Georgetown into the competitive ranks of the nation’s leading universities. Georgetown continues to build on this effort through a heightened sense of responsibility around issues of access, affordability, and equal opportunity. Most importantly, Georgetown doesn’t rely solely on need-blind admissions to increase its yield of high-achieving, low-income students. The critical complementary practice is the commitment to “meet full need.”

Georgetown’s 2017 New Financial Plan states, “Georgetown is one of only about two dozen colleges and universities that maintain need-blind, full-need admission and financial aid policies for their undergraduates.” Maintaining the status of need-blind and full-need ensures that an applicant’s net price to attend remains affordable. In other words, need-blind admissions only serves equity when it is part of a collection of strategies, including those that proactively strive to increase access through other considerations.

Moving Forward

On its own, need-blind admissions is more likely to inadvertently undermine an otherwise strong commitment to equity. The importance of approaching a commitment to equity through a collection of strategies can’t be overstated. Moving forward, it is worth considering complementary strategies. These strategies could include meeting full need, “putting a thumb on the scale” – deliberately considering an applicant’s socio-economic background, or joining a group like the American Talent Initiative (ATI), which has committed to increasingly the number of low-income, first generation students at the most selective schools. In short, drawing on a diverse collection of strategies ensures integrity and intentionality in the process of serving equity.

1. The Overlap Group ended in the 1990’s due to a financial aid antitrust case brought against them.
2. In a subsequent post we’ll surface the complexities around applying for financial aid and interpreting an applicant’s financial aid award.
3. See for additional sources that highlight the lack of transparency in the price of a college degree. NYTimes, NPR, Brookings , New America.

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