Experts on nonverbal behavior will often tell you that the best way to gauge whether or not someone is lying is to observe not the person's face but rather the feet. People are taught the ability to conceal a lie with their faces but they rarely think to manipulate what their feet convey. If parents and high schoolers around the world could observe the feet of unsuspecting college administrators and admissions officers when asked whether highly selective college admissions is truly need blind, they'd likely see a whole lot of tap dancing. Because need blind admissions is as fake as the Tooth Fairy. Now I don't fault my friends in admissions offices across the country for perpetuating this untruth for it is as ingrained in American higher education as are professors in tweed jackets. But I do wish to lift my voice in the hope of debunking this long-held myth.
Need blind admissions, the concept in college admissions that admitting institutions do not take into consideration an applicant's financial need in weighing whether or not to admit the applicant, defies logic. Think about it from a numbers standpoint. If MIT, an institution that is "need blind" and also one that "meets the full demonstrated need" for both domestic and international applicants, admitted a class in which every single applicant needed financial aid, they'd be in big trouble. They'd surely have to tap into their approximate $11 billion endowment and no school -- no matter what they may tell you -- wants to tap into the principle of their endowment. The earnings from the endowment, however, are often earmarked for need based aid. Highly selective colleges like MIT are not looking to make money from tuition. In fact, tuition, room and board, and fees at most highly selective colleges only covers about one half of the cost per student. But MIT -- like all highly selective colleges -- is not looking to lose money either.
While it may seem preposterous that all applicants would need financial aid, when you don't take into account their financial need, colleges run that risk. And college admissions officers don't like to take risks. Think Ben Stiller's character in Along Came Polly. His is as good of a characterization of the mindset of an admissions officer as any. It's why few highly selective colleges -- with exception, for instance, to the proudly defiant University of Chicago -- require more supplemental admissions essays than their peer institutions. They don't want to deter students from applying and thereby risk their US News & World Report ranking free-falling to the tune of Tom Petty.
Does this mean that highly selective colleges don't seek to dip into their endowments for some students? Absolutely not. For a first generation college applicant whose mom and dad work blue collar jobs and whose grades and test scores are just a little bit below that of an advantaged applicant whose mom and dad both have graduate degrees, this is a big part of what the endowment is for. If this first generation college applicant also happens to be an underrepresented minority, even better from a college admissions standpoint. And rightly so.
For students who end up on a highly selective college waitlist, know that your financial need is being taken into account when admissions officers are debating on which waitlisted candidates they'll be admitting off the list. For international applicants, know that you'll be severely handicapping yourself if you check that you need financial aid. But the same is true for all applicants -- not just these better known cases.
The fact is that if highly selective colleges truly were need blind, then why in the "Profile" section of the Common Application does it ask students if they require a fee waiver for the application? College admissions officers can see this response and it's a heck of a clue as to their need for aid. And they can also see on a specific college's "Member Page" through the Common App., under the "General" tab, a question that reads: "Financial aid: Yes or No." College admissions officers are human. Don't think for a second their eyes won't glance there, even unintentionally. The tenets of social psychology teach us that your response to these questions can indeed prime their read of your application. Prime them wisely.
If you're applying to colleges this year and you checked the box on the Common Application that you need financial aid, go to a college's net price calculator and find out if you even qualify for aid. If you don't qualify, don't check the box as you have nothing to gain and plenty to lose. If you do qualify and you need financial aid to pay tuition, you have no choice but to check that box. But that doesn't mean it won't hurt your chances of admission. It's just a fact of life. And if you do qualify and you don't need the aid, may your takeaway from this piece be not to check that box. Because need blind admissions belongs in a book of fairy tales with Rapunzel and the Seven Dwarfs.