Important Financial Aid Policies

Need-Blind Admission vs. Need-Aware Admission


Under a need-blind admission policy, the decision to accept a student is made solely on the applicant’s qualities and the contribution they would make to the college; whether or not the applicant is able to afford the school upon acceptance is not taken into account. If the student is accepted, their application is then reviewed by the financial aid office with a mandate to provide the necessary resources to allow the student to attend the college.

Need-blind admission means that students from all economic backgrounds undergo a similar process. However, the criteria applied by the college for determining need occasionally may result in an aid package that does not include the full amount the student’s family needs the college to cover, a situation that is referred to as "gapping."

Example of Need-Blind: Brown University:“Need-blind admission simply means that an applicant's ability to pay for their education will not be a factor in the admission decision. In other words, a candidate's financial need will not be taken into consideration when deciding to admit, waitlist, or deny an applicant.”


Colleges that do not have the financial resources to be need-blind apply a need-aware (or “need-sensitive”) admission policy and take account of the applicant’s ability to pay the full cost. In the early rounds of admission, an attempt is made to accept a mix of full-pay students and those who are desired on their merits but need financial aid (which they will receive).

Once most of the available aid funds are allocated, the remaining acceptances are weighted toward an ability of applicants to pay all or most of the full cost, and lower-income students in need of aid risk being rejected.

Need-aware colleges frequently claim that they meet the financial need of all admitted students. But a factor in the decision to admit is whether applicants can afford the school—either with their own resources or with an aid package available from the college.

Example of Need-Aware: Macalaster College: “From merit scholarships for academic excellence to need-based aid for financial assistance, Macalester’s financial aid package meets the full demonstrated need of every student we admit.

Need-Based Financial Aid vs. Merit-Based Scholarships

Need-Based Aid

Many colleges give their financial aid solely on the basis of demonstrated need that cannot be met by the student and their family. This type of aid is not based on academic merit, athletic ability or special talents, and it remains available so long as the financial need exists.

It also is common among many colleges (typically those that are not among the most highly resourced academically or financially) to give a combination of need-based and merit-based aid.

Example of Solely Need-Based Aid: Haverford College: “All of Haverford's financial aid is need-based; we do not offer aid based on merit, such as academic or athletic performance.”

Merit-Based Scholarships

Merit scholarships are awarded for academic, athletic and other extracurricular achievement. The awards are given to a small percentage of all students, frequently without regard to financial need, and normally are subject to continuing fulfillment of certain conditions.

There has been a recent trend to use merit scholarships, unrelated to achievements, as discounts to the sticker price to entice otherwise full-pay students.

Example of Merit-Based Scholarships: St. Lawrence University: “When you apply to St. Lawrence University, you will automatically be considered for…academic merit scholarships based on your entire admissions application. This includes your academic record such as courses taken, grades earned, letters of recommendation, and standardized test scores (if submitted), as well as co-curricular activities, the essay, and an interview (if applicable).”

Grants, Loans and Student Jobs

Financial aid packages typically consist of a combination of grants, loans and student jobs.

Grants are outright gifts from the college or other sources and do not need to be repaid.

Loans typically are made by some combination of the college, federal and state government agencies. Loans usually start bearing interest and requiring repayment upon graduation. Several colleges have eliminated or substantially reduced the loan component of their aid packages.

Student jobs are normally on the campus and can take a variety of forms. They typically contribute about $1,000-2,500 of the student’s overall financial needs.

Example of No Loans in Aid Package: Swarthmore College: “Our financial aid awards consist of grants (which do not need to be repaid) and include the expectation that students will work in a part-time campus-based job. Although Swarthmore financial aid awards are loan-free, your family might choose to borrow a loan to pay a portion of the educational expenses.”

Example of Loans in Aid Package: Skidmore College: "Most of the financial assistance at Skidmore is awarded on the basis of demonstrated need and is provided through a student-aid ‘package’ that usually includes a grant, a campus job, and a loan. Student aid funds come from a variety of sources, including Skidmore's own need-based grants and scholarships, as well as federal, state, and independent programs."

Treatment of Outside Scholarships

A recipient of scholarships or other means of financial assistance, from any source other than the college from which they have received financial aid, must immediately report such funds to the college. All colleges have this requirement and, if the college financial aid package includes any Federal grants or loans, it is required by Federal law. This requirement applies to scholarships received at high school graduation. Failure to report outside scholarships and aid can result in withdrawal of all financial aid from the college.

Each college has a policy on the treatment of such funds. Most commonly they are first used to reduce some or all of the loan and work-study component of the aid package. Under no circumstances are they allowed to reduce the expected family contribution.

Example of a College’s Policy on Outside Scholarships: Northwestern University: "Outside scholarships are funds awarded by entities apart from the federal, state and institutional aid programs. Because Northwestern awards financial aid to meet full demonstrated need, federal regulations require that these scholarships be evaluated and incorporated into a student’s financial aid award, and adjustments made when appropriate. When adjusting a student’s need-based award, an outside scholarship will reduce or replace the self-help portion of the student’s award (Federal Work-Study or need-based loans) prior to reducing Northwestern Scholarship. Therefore, outside scholarships benefit students by reducing the need to work or borrow to help finance their education."

FAFSA and CSS Profile

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (“FAFSA”) and the College Scholarship Service Financial Aid Profile (“CSS Profile”) are the most commonly-used forms to apply for financial aid. The FAFSA is used to determine eligibility for federal aid and the CSS Profile is used to determine eligibility for private institutional funds. Both applications are necessary to establish eligibility for all available sources of financial aid.

There are variations in the way the two applications gather information and evaluate criteria to determine need.  Whereas Federal financial aid is calculated based on a strict formula across all students nationwide, the CSS Profile allows colleges to calculate aid eligibility for their own programs based on whatever criteria they set. Hence, the questions on one school’s CSS Profile may vary significantly from another school’s. In general, the CSS Profile asks for more detailed information than the FAFSA.

The FAFSA is a federal form prescribed by Congressional legislation. Its calculations, known as the “Federal Methodology,” are solely to determine eligibility for federal aid, including Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, Perkins Loans, Stafford Loans and Federal Work-Study Jobs. The FAFSA takes into account the family’s income, assets, benefits, family size and number of household members in college. The income information is based on the tax returns of the prior year and an estimate for the current year. Within three weeks of filing the student receives a Student Aid Report (“SAR”) that gives the family’s “Expected Family Contribution” (“EFC”).

The CSS Profile, a service of the College Board, is required by many private colleges and universities to determine eligibility for non-government financial aid, such as the institution's own grants, loans and scholarships. The CSS Profile takes into account factors not considered on the FAFSA form, such as the value of a parent’s home, insurance contract values and annual retirement plan contributions. It includes an expected minimum student contribution (which is fulfilled by summer and school-year jobs).

The CSS Profile provides a nominal computation of a family's EFC through a series of calculations known as the “Institutional Methodology”. However, colleges utilizing the CSS Profile are free to vary from this nominal computation, because they are not bound by law in their assessment of "need". One example of variance among colleges is the way home equity contributes towards EFC. The College Board’s nominal computation assumes that 5% of home equity is available for the EFC. However, some colleges choose not to assess home equity at all.

There are several on-line calculators that families can use to enter their data and determine their EFC under the Federal or Institutional Methodology. Examples include the FAFSA4caster and the College Board EFC Calculator. In addition, many colleges provide a calculator that reflects the school’s specific aid criteria, such as that of Williams College.

Parents and students who anticipate a need for financial aid are advised to start work early on the FAFSA and the CSS Profile. The FAFSA is due between January 1 and February 15 and the CSS Profile is due between October 1 and February 15. Filing early in these periods will increase the likelihood of a timely reply concerning financial aid.