There are so many factors that a college admissions officer considers when evaluating an application.

You probably can think of several test scores, GPA, essays, extracurriculars. What you may not be thinking of is financial need. But it’s true that in some cases, an applicant’s financial status can impact their admission. Wondering how your financial need factors into your admission? Read on for answers to this and other questions.  

Do All Schools Factor in Financial Need?

When it comes to financial need intertwining with admissions, there are two categories of schools need-aware and need-blind. Need-aware schools ask if students will need aid on the applications and then factor applicants’ financial need into their admissions decisions. “This doesn’t mean that it is the first or most important factor in the acceptance decision, but it means that it could play a role,” says Sabrina Manville, co-founder of Edmit.

Need-blind schools, on the other hand, are those that “do not take into account a student’s socioeconomic status,” Manville explains. “The school is committing to only consider a student’s financial aid package once the acceptance decision is made.” Only about 100 colleges in the United States and universities are need-blind.

“College is a business. [Colleges] need money, and tuition is a large source of income for them.”

— Kristen Moon

Why Do Most Schools Consider Financial Need?

Kristen Moon, an independent college counselor and founder of Moon Prep, puts it bluntly: “College is a business. [Colleges] need money, and tuition is a large source of income for them. They cannot offer all students a scholarship. They must balance it out, and students who can pay full tuition are needed to help with this balancing act.”

Manville says that most schools have a target “discount rate” that they work from when making admissions decisions. It means the goal is that “the average student pays a certain price,” she says. “Therefore if they accept students who need significant financial aid to make it work, they also need to accept some students who have the ability to pay more. The only way to manage this is to be aware of a student’s financial situation as they review the application.”

Need-blind admissions policies are much rarer because there are far fewer schools who can afford to go that route. “Only the wealthiest schools can claim this,” Manville says. However, admission still does not guarantee that a financial package will be offered.

So, No-Need Students Have an Advantage?

Need-aware admissions policies are controversial, according to Erin Goodnow, co-founder and CEO of Going Ivy, because they can give students without financial need a leg up. “If an admissions committee is on the fence about admitting a student, his or her ability to pay could make a difference,” she says. “It doesn’t feel fair. A college education, especially at an elite school, is one major way to move into a higher socioeconomic class and open doors to opportunities. If those opportunities are only open to those who are already in an economic position to afford it, the altruistic mission of college is diminished.”

However, like most things in the college application process, it’s not that simple. “The idea is that need-blind is fairer because it looks at students on the merits only,” Manville says. But, she adds that “just because a school is need-aware does not mean that it will not make it possible for lower-income students to attend. In fact, all colleges need to figure out how to enroll students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, since the number of full-pay students is low and shrinking due to demographic trends.”

What’s the Bottom Line?

Before beginning your application process, it’s a good idea to know where each school stands. “Get smart about what schools meet the need of applicants and how generous a school is for students like you — whether that means need-based financial aid or merit money,” Manville says. She notes that most need-aware schools don’t advertise that fact. It’s safe to assume that if they don’t advertise being need-blind, they’re probably not.

“You should go in with eyes open about what help you can expect from the school, so that you don’t fall in love with a school that won’t be generous,” Manville says. “Seek out those schools that are committed to socioeconomic diversity and have dedicated programs and public commitments.”

The truth is, regardless of where you apply — to schools that are need-blind or need-aware — you won’t know exactly what aid you’ll be offered until you receive your award letters. The most you can do is educate yourself, talk to your family about what you’re able to afford, apply for scholarships and then figure out what makes the most sense when your award letters roll in.