Oberlin Blogs

Need Sensitivity

April 16, 2012

Elizabeth Houston ’06

Sometimes people get the impression that Oberlin has need-blind admissions. That certainly fits in well with Oberlin's commitments to access and inclusion, but, in fact, we have been need-sensitive for the past twenty years or so.

What does it mean to be need-sensitive? Well, our standard line when the question comes up is to say that, for most students in our applicant pool, need does not have an influence on our admissions decisions. Generally we'll also talk about how we're committed to meeting 100% of the demonstrated financial need for all admitted students, and how that necessarily affects our consideration of need during the admissions process. While financial aid is one of the top three expenditures at Oberlin, the amount of funds available is still finite, and we do have to take that into account in the admissions process. If, for instance, we admitted a class comprised entirely of students who could make no financial contribution toward their education, we simply couldn't afford it. That's an extreme case, but even taking into account the natural mix of income levels a college might see in their applicant pool, there are still very few institutions that are wealthy enough to afford to be completely need-blind and still meet 100% of demonstrated need.

Instead, most institutions have to make a choice between those two ideals. Some will choose to practice need-blind admissions, but then find themselves using what's known as "gapping" in their financial aid packages, where they calculate a student's financial need to be a certain amount, and then either offer a financial aid package for a lesser amount or include a huge loan component. We think it's unfair to admit a student who really has no financial possibility of attending, so we've chosen what we believe to be the lesser of two evils in incorporating need sensitivity into our admissions selection process.

The fact remains, though, that even if need isn't a factor for most applicants, it's still a factor for some applicants. We never emphasize this, and we don't even like to think about it. It makes most of us in the admissions office at least a little uncomfortable, and sometimes it's really upsetting. Bringing this up certainly never produces a fun conversation with a prospective student or their family. It's also true that we prefer not to talk about this because we don't want to discourage anyone from applying to Oberlin just because they have financial need. We do admit mostly applicants with some degree of need-- about two-thirds of our student body receives some kind of need-based financial aid. We're even particularly generous toward admitted students who have a high level of financial need. Our Access Initiative allows us to eliminate or nearly eliminate the loan component from the financial aid package of very high-need students who qualify for a Federal Pell Grant. In short, we accept lots of students with financial need, and even high levels of financial need, and we work very hard to provide financial aid packages that make Oberlin an affordable option for all of those admitted students.

However, need does influence some decisions. We do accept some students on the edge of admissibility because they can contribute to the costs of an Oberlin education. On the other hand, we invariably find ourselves waitlisting or denying some students each year who are otherwise well-qualified and appealing, due to a high level of financial need.

This may come as a big surprise to you, but it's not really a big secret. Most schools do this, although, like those of us at Oberlin, most college reps will avoid talking about it like the plague. But we know. Savvy high school guidance counselors know as well, and sometimes they'll even bring it up when talking to us about their students. In the spirit of fairness and equal distribution of information, I wanted to make sure that you know, too. If you find yourself trying to make sense of a decision from Oberlin that is different from what you expected, just keep in mind that, among all of the other factors we consider in our holistic review, ability to pay may have had an influence on our final decision. But please don't call our office asking if you've been waitlisted or rejected in part because of financial need, because you will definitely not get a straight answer-- not even from me.

(Actually, calling the admissions office to inquire about the reasons behind an admissions decision is never a particularly good idea, and generally won't produce a satisfying experience. Because we do a holistic review, we can't point to a single factor that made our decision. We can't replicate the full decision-making process for you, either, since each application goes through so many layers of review, including a final, undocumented discussion in committee. Calling us might allow you to vent your feelings of frustration or disappointment, but it won't really help you find out more about why we made our decision and definitely won't convince us to change our decision.)

Responses to this Entry

What a hard post to tackle, but you did it so well. Thanks for shedding a bit more light, Elizabeth.

Posted by: Ma'ayan on April 17, 2012 1:29 PM

Thank you for writing this clearly and honestly. I know of at least one outstanding senior who has shed many tears recently, having been wait-listed at all her top choice colleges. Unfortunately, even knowing this in advance does not make it easy for students (and parents) in this situation.

Posted by: Aviva Plaut on April 23, 2012 7:12 PM

Thank you for writing about this!

Posted by: Tess on April 26, 2012 4:26 PM

Maybe if oberlin spent less investing in exxon mobil it would spend more living up to its ideals.

Posted by: Anonymous on May 8, 2012 9:01 PM

Hello, my name is Dane and I am going to be a senior in the fall at East High School in Madison, WI. I first of all want to thank you for this informative article, and all of the blogging that you do to reach out to high school students possibly applying to Oberlin. I'm really drawn to Oberlin and see it as my top school currently because of how well you meet my combination of interests and relate to my experiences as a high school student, such as my interests of having vocal performance as a major and the availability to take classes focused so specifically at gender studies, LGBTQ issues and activism, and other fields of sociology that rarely are covered so thoroughly at other colleges and universities. In terms of applying, I plan to give myself the chance of being accepted of course and audition for the conservatory as well as double major at the same time at the college of arts and sciences; however, Oberlin is a reach school for me in a couple aspects. My 3.93 GPA and choice of taking honors classes throughout high school and one AP class my junior year to experience that environment (Next year I'm taking 5) bolsters my confidence a little bit. I also have many extra curriculars I have participated in such as MYC (Madison Youth Choirs) which I've been a member for about six years, my school's Gay Straight Alliance and Words Hurt Club, a member of the student planning team of GSAFE (GSA's for Safe Schools) which provides resources to High Schools throughout WIsconsin to be successful in making their schools safer not just for LGBTQ students but for students of all types of diversities and to be inclusive of all identities within the LGBTQ community. I have also been a volunteer at Briarpatch for nearly a year now for their free crisis helpline in terms of volunteer work. My main concern, however, is how my ACT and SAT scores will affect my application. I understand that you consider GPA more in terms of succeeding in your classroom environment rather than standardized tests, but with this selective process, that in itself may prevent me from being accepted. Currently, I scored a 23 on the ACT and a 1530 on the SAT which I do understand aren't great scores. In my application, I'd likely explain that the combination of the pressure of doing well on standardized tests with the limited time causes a lot of anxiety and nervousness that I try my best to control but not always, and that this plus feeling rushed don't allow me to focus how I would regularly in other dynamics. My main question is if with my situation, could I possibly hope to be accepted if I applied? I feel that as a person and who I represent, I would be a good fit for Oberlin, and sometimes the individual aspects and thoroughness of an individual's application can override struggle in ACT/SAT scores and other downfalls. Thank you for your time and for reading this very long comment, and feedback would be greatly appreciated!

Posted by: Dane Skaar on July 18, 2012 1:30 PM

Hi Dane! Thanks for reading the blogs and for taking the time to reach out- it sounds like you've been doing a lot of college research, which is great! Because Oberlin uses a holistic review process to make admissions decisions, it's difficult to say whether an individual is likely to be admitted or not without having reviewed the entire application. My colleague Elizabeth has written a bit more extensively about the subject. If you'd like to talk more specifically about the application process, please don't hesitate to contact me at liz.hui[at]oberlin.edu. Best wishes to you!

Posted by: Liz Hui on July 19, 2012 8:49 AM

Okay thank you. :)

Posted by: Dane Skaar on July 21, 2012 1:12 AM

I see that you say that for *most* of the applicants, you employ a need blind policy, but for *some* applicants , ability to pay is used as a factor in deciding admission. Can you give us a sense of the proportions of the applicant pool that you would apply this rule?

I have seen this model at some other LACs, Macalaster, and Wesleyan U, and they actually quantified this policy. Mac said for 85 pct of the applicants who are Amc- worthy, they are need blind, and the rest they will peek at the financial conditons of the applicants. Wes had the exact policy but with a different number - it was 90 pct.

thanks. ray

Posted by: raymond on August 13, 2013 5:35 PM

Hi Ray - That's a good question, but unfortunately I don't have a good answer for you. Because of our holistic review process, it is difficult to pinpoint a single determining factor in an admissions decision. We don't mark files, for instance, as admissible but rejected due to need, so I can't produce any hard data about the number of decisions affected by finances. The level of financial need is a piece of information available to the admissions committee during the discussion of each applicant, but it is not available to counselors during their initial evaluations of applications. Because level of need is just one of many bits of information available during the decision-making process, it is difficult to say exactly how many decisions are truly affected by the level of need. My personal impression, though, as someone who reviewed applications and sat on the admissions committee for four years, is that the proportion of decisions affected is quite small. If I had to throw a number out, I'd say less than ten percent, but that's just a guess based on personal experience, rather than an official stat.

Posted by: Elizabeth Houston on August 14, 2013 11:04 AM

Hello and thank you for the information. Could you clarify if aid would be offered to students on the waitlist who did eventually end up with an admission offer ? Thank you very much!

Posted by: Meredith Tolley on March 23, 2019 4:53 PM

Meredith, this post is from 2012, and I'm not sure whether Elizabeth will see your question. Better to address it directly to the Financial Aid office.

Posted by: David Walker on March 23, 2019 4:59 PM

Leave a Comment

Similar Blog Entries