COVID-19 Pandemic and Its Effect on Need-Blind College Applications

As the current public health crisis barrels toward an enormous economic crisis, families are feeling the crunch as parents experience pay cuts and even unemployment. One thing is for sure: in the fall of 2020, families will be entering a college application season like none that has ever come before, not least because financial ability will likely be of even higher importance in shaping students’ college lists. Many may look for salvation in the form of “need-blind” colleges, or schools that do not take the ability to pay tuition into account when accepting students. There’s only one problem: those schools are a fairy tale.

Types of Need Blind Schools

There are in fact many different kinds of schools that consider themselves need-blind. There are those schools like Harvard and Stanford that do not consider financial circumstances and commit to assisting students in meeting the entire tuition requirement if they are accepted. There are other schools that make the same commitment but will do so using outside loans and other resources that students will need to shoulder. And then there are the schools that have built a high and insurmountable wall between acceptance, blind of need, and actual payment, where students will receive no guaranteed assistance at all.

The Problem with Ivy League Schools and Financial Aid

The problem with all of these schools is that, while they claim to be blind to students’ needs, logic and practice argue very differently. If Harvard or Stanford or MIT were to pay for every student’s tuition out of their own assets, something that could well become a necessity if the admissions process is truly blind, they would be forced to withdraw millions of dollars from their endowments, something no college has ever done willingly. Second, and more basically, if a school uses the Common Application or Coalition application (and that is most of them; over a thousand combined at last count), they inherently cannot be need-blind. You see, there is a small, easily-overlooked box that all students must check before they submit their applications on these online platforms: “Do you qualify for financial aid?” This question is not in its own separate supplement that colleges can choose not to receive; no, it is part and parcel of the core of a student’s application, and will inevitably go to every school they apply to. Perhaps the admissions personnel of need-blind schools are superhuman and somehow avoid even glancing at this box for every one of the thousands of applications they review every year. I highly doubt it.

So what does this mean for the upcoming Fall 2020 application cycle? First, those that apply to need-blind schools may be in for a rude awakening as others have the same idea, making competition more fierce for those schools where the playing field was likely not as even as families were led to believe it was. Second, families in the know and fortunate enough to not be too adversely impacted by the current crisis may do well to look at schools that are “need-aware;” as has always been the case in admissions, the most success lies where the fewest gather.

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