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Navigating Need-Blind and Need-Aware Admissions

Miami — Will checking the box indicating they intend to apply for financial aid hurt students’ chances of admission? That was what an audience member at a session about need-blind and need-aware admissions at the College Board Forum here wanted to know.

But the three panelists—from a need-aware college that meets students’ financial need, a need-blind university that does not, and a private high school—did not offer an easy answer.

That’s a testament to how individualized colleges’ admissions and financial-aid policies can be. And when it comes to how international students, or those on the wait list are treated, things get even more complex. That variation can leave students, parents, and the people who try to help them confused.

Neither need-blind admissions, under which students’ ability to pay is not considered during the admissions process, nor need-aware, in which it might be, at least at the margins, is necessarily better, said Matthew J. Malatesta, vice president for admissions, financial aid, and enrollment at Union College, a New York institution that is need-aware. After all, neither policy tells you whether, or how, a college will meet students’ need.

The intersection between admissions and aid is a pressurized place for families, Mr. Malatesta said. “You’re talking to people about the two things most important to them,” he said, “their children and their money.”

The important thing, Mr. Malatesta said, is for families to understand which kind of process they are dealing with. “Our hope is that colleges and counselors can be open about the realities that are out there,” he said. And, he said, students and their parents should ask colleges a lot of questions about how their policies play out.

Figuring that out can be a lot of work, said Gloria Diaz Ventura, co-director of college counseling at Flintridge Preparatory School, in California. “This is a time-intensive part of the counseling process,” she said. There is a real need, she said, for financial-aid counselors to give prospective students better guidance.

The need for transparency does not end with an offer of admission, said Shawn L. Abbott, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions at New York University (which is need-blind and does not meet full need). NYU’s president has admitted that its financial aid “stinks,” Mr. Abbott said, and the university sometimes tries to dissuade students who will struggle to afford it from enrolling.

“I spend a ton of my time pleading with families about not making the reckless decision to come to NYU,” Mr. Abbott said. His ability to do so is helped, he added, by working at a place that remains in high demand.

If there was one big takeaway from the panel, it was that students and families have to do their homework to understand how a college’s policies are likely to mesh with their own situation.

Oh, and that question about checking the box? The two college panelists agreed it doesn’t really matter whether admissions chances are hurt or not: If students need financial aid, they should check the box. Otherwise, they risk being admitted to a top choice that has no money left with which to support them.

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