The Myth of “Need Blind Admissions” and “Meeting Full Need”

I like Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s blog The College Solution, because Lynn does a nice job of pulling out data and looking at things objectively.  I think we need more of that.

But a recent post of hers pointed out to me how frequently we use terms in higher education that are disingenuous, and how data can be misleading: Click here to read Lynn’s post about the colleges and universities that meet full need.  Think about it a little, then come back.

It’s true that these institutions do a great job of funding poor students they admit.  The problem appears to be that they don’t admit many of them in the first place.  This is the myth of need-blind admissions: All these institutions (I think) claim to be need blind, but when they make admissions decisions, they only pay attention to the income part of low-income, not the residual effects.  If you use SAT or ACT; if you favor students who have lots of AP courses; if you effectively reward expensive test-prep programs; or even if you prize activities that can only be mastered if you have lots of time because you don’t have to work, you’re overlooking a lot of things that come with being poor, or even middle-class.  Need blind admissions is a nice, noble-sounding term. It’s not so pretty in reality.

What also shows up is that these institutions tend to be fairly well-resourced, yet enroll far fewer low-income students than other, less wealthy colleges and universities.  So, the double whammy is this: They could afford to support many more low-income students if they wanted to.

As you might expect, I went to Tableau and the IPEDS data sets from 2010.  And I created this visualization.  I kept it really simple to drive home the point.  If you don’t want to go to the live visualization, here is a screenshot of it:

The x-axis shows institutional wealth: The farther to the right, the wealthier an institution is (using net assets per student). The y-axis shows percent of students receiving Federal Aid. The lower you are, the richer your student body is.  Note that the y-axis bottoms out at 30%.

The bubble is sized by the percentage of the student body that is African-American or Hispanic; and it’s colored by group: Red bubbles are those institutions that meet full need; while blue bubbles are a set I work with frequently: Large Catholic Universities that do not claim to meet full need. BC and Georgetown are red, as they were on the “meet-need” list.

Note that the institutions that “Meet Need” have very few students with need, in general. And they are, ironically, the institutions who would have the means to support more of them, should they choose to do so. Strike you as ironic?

4 thoughts on “The Myth of “Need Blind Admissions” and “Meeting Full Need”

  1. Jon,

    You and I have met a couple of times when I was with ACT. I’m now an independent educational consultant. I’ve long intuited this issue, so thank you for quantifying it. The “rich” schools yield rich students. That’s why I was an immediate skeptic of Harvard’s and Yale’s program of charging only 10% of a family’s AGI. As you so clearly articulate, the vast majority of kids who can score high on the SAT/ACT, and therefore gain admission to those schools, are from affluent families, so the policy is window dressing. It is more effective at assauging guilt than gaining social justice. You can check out my web site and blog for more info about what I do, but thanks again. This is great data. Dean Skarlis


  2. Great post. Glad to see that others are wise to the myth of need blind admissions. We all want to believe that universities exist for the public good. But tertiary education in the US is primarily a private good–and becoming more and more so as taxpayers refuse to fund our public universities.

    Thanks for digging into this important subject


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