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.)

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