Applying vs. needing

There are certain questions that pop up annually during application season. And one of them appeared last week with one of our Collegewise counselors. We tell families that applying for need-based financial aid can’t hurt your chances of admission. But once again, a family heard from a friend that certain schools are “need-aware” or “need-sensitive,” both of which mean that they will have access to information about your financial need when they make admissions decisions. That’s actually true. But this family was also under the impression that simply applying for aid—or even just checking the box on the Common Application indicating that you intend to apply for financial aid—will automatically be held against you in the admissions process. That’s absolutely not true.

Applying for aid is not the same thing as needing aid. No college assumes that the fact you’re applying for aid automatically means they have to give it to you. I, and my colleagues at Collegewise (who collectively have worked in admissions at dozens of colleges), have never heard of a student being put at a disadvantage just because they applied for financial aid. Whether the school pays attention to financial need or not makes no difference during the application stage.

But needing financial aid can sometimes make a difference.

After you apply for aid, the government and the college use complex formulas to determine whether or not you qualify for need-based aid. If the calculations indicate that you’ll need aid, especially if you’ll need a lot of it, that can sometimes put you at a disadvantage at need-aware and need-sensitive schools, especially if the committee already has reservations about you (spotty grades, disciplinary problems, or other issues that can raise admissions concerns).

Needing a lot of aid can sometimes hurt your chances. But if you could go back in time and decide not to apply for aid, how would that have helped? You might have gotten in, but then you’d have no way to pay for it.

Unless you are absolutely certain that you can write a check for the full cost of attendance–not just the tuition, but the room and board, travel, and living expenses (check each college’s website for their cost of attendance)–you should apply for financial aid. An admissions office’s job is to admit the kids they want. The financial aid office’s job is to help families who qualify for aid find a way to pay for it. And even on campuses where those offices talk to each other, their goal is to bring in the kids they want, not to keep out anyone who might need help paying for it.