Do Need-Blind Colleges Really Exist?


Today I am sharing a guest blog post that Jon Boeckenstedt, an associate vice president for enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University in Chicago wrote on his blog (Jon Boeckenstedt’s Admissions Weblog).  It’s rare that admission administrators speak candidly about controversial aspects of the admission process, but refreshingly Jon doesn’t hold back.

People pan eriodically ask me to identify need-blind colleges and universities and I try to tell them that actually they don’t exist contrary to what institutions tell families. In Boeckenstedt’s blog post below,  which he wrote in reaction to a Jon BoeckenstedtNew York Times article this spring, he articulates far better than I could why need-blind colleges are a myth. Lynn O’Shaughnessy

By Jon Boeckenstedt

The teaser in an email from The New York Times was promising:

ScreenHunter_01 Apr. 13 10.34

It’s generally a good article, pointing out the arbitrary definition of need and how it varies from one college to another.  It demonstrates how out-of pocket costs for any student can swing wildly, even among the institutions that claim to meet full need (do loans count?) But the article falls short in one important area: While there is at least one expert who casts some doubt on the concept of “need-blind admissions,” the premise largely survives the article unscathed.

I’ve said before, and will say it again: There is no such thing as need blind admissions.

There are two big reasons for this:

First, at the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities, enrolling the overwhelming majority of college students, there is no full-pay student waiting in line to take the spot of a poor student who is denied. Most colleges and universities accept the majority of applications they receive; it’s even more pronounced than that visual might suggest, because many colleges use “Fast Apps/Snap Apps/VIP Apps” and other mechanisms to artificially inflate application numbers from students who have almost zero percent chance of enrolling.  Others recruit students who have almost no chance of being admitted.  Rejected students are grist for the mill in the industry.  But in essence, most colleges have to accept low-income students if they expect to make the class. Thus, they are effectively need blind, but not on the basis of some moral principle; they really have no choice.

But at that very small sliver of universities that claim to be need-blind and that could swap a poor student for a wealthy one–the ones who wear “need-blind” as badge of honor–the term is fairly ridiculous on its face.  It’s probably true, of course, that the admissions officer does not look at family income or FAFSA results while reviewing the file.  But ignoring income, and ignoring the residual effects of low-income are two entirely different things. The way our current admissions process works, virtually every other factor considered favors wealthier students, and/or students from wealthier high schools.

Don’t believe me?  Consider:

Admissions Factor Wealthier Students and/or from Wealthier Schools Poorer Students and/or from Poorer Schools Advantage
Test Scores Wealthier students come from schools with access to expensive test-prep and can take the tests multiple time May not know how tests work, what the differences are Wealthy students
Advanced Courses/Rigor Wealthier students come from private schools or higher-income public schools with greater access to AP, Honors, IB and other courses  Likely to come from schools with fewer options for advanced courses; especially if prerequisites require planning from freshman year Wealthy students
Essays Essays may be written, edited, groomed, and polished, sometimes over a year’s time Unless the importance of the essay is clearly understood, there may be little or no editing or reviewing by adults Wealthy students
Letters of Recommendation Counselors and teachers are expected to write letters designed to give the student every advantage in the process Letters may be written by counselors or teachers who do not understand the game, or may not even know the student well Wealthy students
Activities Resumes are carefully designed to highlight leadership, volunteer activities, and activities tied to school and campus culture More likely to include jobs that detract from school activity options, but may be financially necessary  Wealthy students
Legacy Status More likely to have college-educated parents Less likely to have college educated parents Wealthy students
Diversity Less likely to be from an underrepresented group More likely to be from an underrepresented group Poorer students

With odds like that, how can anyone say that need is not a factor in admissions?  And if you still need some more evidence, take a look at how this plays out even at public institutions.

So, can we please stop using this term?

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  1. I whole-hardily disagree with the premise that “needs-blind admissions are a myth”. I am the recipient of the very generous scholarships and grants provided by Cornell University to fund my education.

    I began my academic journey at Cuyahoga Community College where I excelled as a nontraditional student. I applied and was accepted to Cornell’s Industrial and Labor Relations College in the fall of 2012. I graduated this past May. Cornell has a needs blind admissions policy and the promises held true. The school even paid for my semester in Dublin (including all travel and living expenses.

    Perhaps there are some schools whose touting of “needs blind admissions” are deceiving, but before you hold all schools in the same light you should know the facts.

    Best regards,


  2. I’ve been in a running debate on this topic. My opinion is that schools will become even more need-aware as they try to become diverse. They will do a better job of recruiting the better students from poorer neighborhoods–as long as they have the opportunity to work with someone else’s resources besides the Federal government and their own funds. This might mean more restricted funds for the school’s endowment or more partnerships with organizations such as Questbridge that help to screen the applications. But as these schools admit more, they will not enlarge their freshman classes to welcome students who might be better off but far from wealthy.

  3. Question about one element of this – an admissions counsellor guest speaker at my child’s school said that admissions officers LOVE to see jobs/real employment on a student’s apps. She said that jobs show real responsibility, ability to reliably show up on time and do what is expected – as opposed to potential fluff activities or wealthy-parent-funded trips to go ‘help out’ in a foreign land.

    1. Hi Anni,

      What schools are looking for will vary. I would say that having a job will definitely look more impressive than the fun humanitarian trips that wealthy students can enjoy.

      Lynn O.

  4. Need blind admissions is a marketing ploy. Many of the books that have examined the inner workings of the admissions process including Creating a Class by Mitchell Stevens and Playing the Selective College Admissions Game by Richard Moll tell the truth. Selective colleges are much more “need-aware” than they like to admit.