Need-Blind vs. Need-Aware Admissions Policies

Students in wealthy families enjoy many advantages if they aspire to attend an elite institution. One advantage is that the family can simply pay full tuition plus all other costs — up to $320,000 for four years — if they so choose. If the student’s academics are good, full payers are irresistible to many admissions offices.

Ordinary students can’t do this, but they can come close if they get admitted to an institution with a need-blind admission policy. Acceptance by a need-blind college means that the student, if admitted, is guaranteed to have all costs covered. A similar result  happens at a need-aware college, but these schools don’t guarantee that they’ll meet all of an admittee’s needs and they reserve some freshman seats for students who pay full cost.

If a college isn’t need-blind or need-aware, it doesn’t mean that an admittee won’t be offered a decent financial aid package. However, in reviewing applications, most colleges consider the amount of financial aid that an applicant will need. An applicant may be rejected if their need is more than the college can afford.

If sufficient need-based aid isn’t available, there’s another way to reduce college costs. Students can apply to colleges that award merit aid on a spot basis. These schools have an ulterior motive — to entice exceptional students to enroll at their school rather than a peer institution. If enough applicants take the bait, the academic metrics of the school’s incoming freshman class will improve. For this reason, colleges offer discounted tuition. In evaluating colleges, students seeking financial aid should give extra weight to those that discount tuition.

Need-Blind Admissions

Need-blind refers to a policy by which a college doesn’t consider the financial circumstances of an applicant when deciding to accept or reject them. These colleges usually provide sufficient financial aid to admittees with demonstrated need to enable them to attend.

There are three types of need-blind admissions policies:

  1. Full Need without Loans – This type of college offers admittees a financial aid package that covers demonstrated need up to the full Cost of Attendance (COA), which is the school’s “sticker price”. The package doesn’t include loans. It is comprised entirely of “gift” aid that doesn’t need to be paid back.
  2. Full Need with Loans – These colleges also guarantee to cover the full cost of a student’s demonstrated need by means of a financial aid package. The difference is that the aid package may include loans as well as gift aid.
  3. No Guarantee Financial Aid – The admissions office of these colleges makes the decision to accept or reject applicants without knowing their financial circumstances,. They provide a guarantee of full financial aid to some admittees but not others. However, all admittees can expect to receive a generous aid package that will cover most of their demonstrated need.

There are only six U.S. institutions that are need-blind under the Type #1 definition for both U.S. and international admittees. They are Amherst, Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Yale. Most need-blind institutions are of the second type.

A number of top-tier institutions offer the third type of need-blind admissions. They meet the full demonstrated need for one category of admitted applicants but not for others, the most common of which is international applicants. Some colleges, like William & Mary and University of Michigan, meet the demonstrated need of admitted in-state students, but don’t guarantee that they will meet the needs of out-of-state or international admittees.

Below, in Table A, are the top institutions with need-blind policies in 2022:

Table A

Top Institutions with Need-Blind Admission Policies

Adrian College Harvard University St. John’s College
Amherst College Harvey Mudd College St. Olaf College
Babson College Haverford College Stanford University
Barnard College Hiram College SUNY – Environmental Science
Baylor University Ithaca College Swarthmore College
Biola University Jewish Theological Seminary Syracuse University
Boston College Johns Hopkins University Texas Christian University
Boston University Julliard The College of New Jersey
Bowdoin College Kenyon College Thomas Aquinas College
Brandeis University Lawrence University Trinity University
Brown University Lehigh University Tulane University
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Lewis & Clark College University of Chicago
Caltech Marist College University of Illinois at Chicago
Carnegie Mellon Marlboro College U-MD School of Business
Chapman University MIT University of New Hampshire
Claremont McKenna Middlebury College UNC – Chapel Hill
Columbia University Mount St. Mary’s College University of Notre Dame
Cooper Union New York University University of Pennsylvania
Cornell College North Carolina State University of Richmond
Cornell University North Central College University of Rochester
Curtis Institute of Music Northeastern University University of Southern California
Dartmouth College Northwestern University University of Vermont
Davidson College Olin College University of Virginia
Denison University Penn State University of Washington
DePaul University Pomona College Ursuline College
Duke University Princeton University Vanderbilt University
Elon University Providence College Vassar College
Emory University Randolph College Wabash College
Fairleigh Dickinson Rice University William & Mary
Florida State University Salem College Wellesley College
Fordham University Saint Louis University Wesleyan University
Olin College of San Jose State University Williams College
Georgetown University Santa Clara University Yale University
Grinnell College Southern Methodist Univ. Yeshiva University
Hamilton College Soka University of America  University of Michigan

Source: PrepScholar

Need-blind institutions offer admitted students an outstanding education even if they can’t pay for it. They’re ideal for students who aspire to attend an elite school but can’t afford one. However, these schools have rigorous admission standards. Many admit fewer than 20% of applicants and some fewer than 10%.

Need-Aware Admissions

A need-aware institution makes most admissions decisions without considering an applicant’s financial need, but it reserves a certain number of  freshman seats for applicants who will pay full freight and, in many cases, seats for preferred categories of applicants such as legacies and athletes.

Below in Table B are the top institutions with need-aware policies in 2022:

Table B

Top Institutions with Need-Aware Admission Policies

Auburn University Bates College Bryn Mawr College
Carleton College Clemson University Colgate University
Loyola Marymount Univ. Northeastern University Smith College
Tufts University Washington Univ. in St. Louis Wesleyan University
Ohio State University University of Miami in Ohio Texas A&M University
Reed College Gettysburg College Colby College
Occidental College Mount Holyoke College Pitzer College
Trinity College Macalester College Oberlin College
Connecticut College Skidmore College Harvey Mudd College

Source: PrepScholar

An applicant’s demonstrated financial need may affect the decision to admit them to a need-aware school. If a college determines that they’re unable to afford an applicant’s need, they may reject them, although this is rare. Also, these schools don’t guarantee that they will meet the full demonstrated need of admittees, even though they often do. Most need-aware colleges are highly selective in admissions.

Discounted Tuition

An applicant’s academic achievements are still the most important factor in admissions. But a high GPA within a robust curriculum isn’t just about admission. It also determines what a student will need to pay for a bachelor’s degree.

Colleges have conflicting motives when selecting applicants for admission. The main motive is to accept qualified applicants who will generate sufficient revenue to enable the school to operate at its desired level. But the inclination to maximize revenue is tempered by the need to enroll students of high caliber so they can maintain the college’s academic reputation. To satisfy both motives, many colleges offer merit aid to specific applicants.

In the last decade, colleges have begun to treat merit aid strategically as a means of boosting their standing among their peers. It’s used as bait to land applicants who will improve the metrics that are weighed most heavily by college ranking publishers like U.S. News & World Reports. Lately, tuition discounts disguised as merit aid have become even more important for some colleges as they fight to maintain enrollment under intensely competitive conditions.

Because so many colleges now use merit aid strategically, a college’s COA has become less significant. Freshman classes are now like airline cabins — filled with people who paid a wide range of prices for the same thing.

Common Data Set

In considering tuition discounts, families need information about the average number applicants that are offered discounts and the average size of the discounts. A quick way to obtain this information is to review the Common Data Set (CDS) record for a college, which can be obtained by entering “Common Data Set Name-of-College” in a search engine. Many colleges also post CDS information on their websites. According to Ron Lieber, an education writer for the New York Times, “The CDS is a rich trove of information for college shoppers, no matter what you’re able or willing to pay.

Families with high household incomes may not qualify for need-based aid under the FAFSA formula, but this doesn’t mean that they can afford to pay full cost for a top-tier college. These are the families that should examine the CDS data most closely. Colleges complete a data field called “Institutional non-need-based scholarship or grant aid”. This is the total of merit aid issued by a college to admittees who are, at least by FAFSA standards, capable of paying full tuition, but were offered tuition discounts as an incentive to enroll.


As a College Counselor, Kelly Barnhardt of College Admission Strategies understands the new, post-pandemic landscape of college admissions. She guides her clients through the maze of admissions all the way to enrollment in the college that fits them best. College Admission Strategies  has helped students gain admission to a wide range of excellent institutions including Yale, American, Berkeley, Clemson, Furman, Middlebury, Harvard, UCLA, Chicago, Boston College, Northwestern, Notre Dame, UNC-Chapel Hill, Carnegie-Mellon, Catholic University, Oberlin, Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, Dartmouth, Emerson, Tufts, Goucher, Brown, USC, Bryn Mawr, Emory, UPenn, Rice and many more.