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Colleges routinely boast about being "need blind" in admissions, meaning that they consider applicants without regard to their ability to pay. But even if they are need blind, and a new survey suggests they are, that may be very different from being an institution that any academically qualified student can actually attend.

That's because only a small subset of colleges pledges to meet the full need of all students they admit. That means that for most institutions, "gapping" has become the norm. That's when a college admits a student, tells her that she probably needs $X to afford to enroll, and then provides a package that is less than $X -- sometimes considerably so.

Details on these trends are provided in a report released Tuesday by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and written by Donald E. Heller, a professor of education and director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University. The report is based on a national survey of four-year colleges and universities.

On need-blind status, the study found that 93 percent of public institutions and 81 percent of private institutions say that they are entirely need blind. An additional 6 percent of private colleges report that they are need blind until May 1, and then consider economic circumstances when evaluating students on the waiting list or who apply late. But the numbers change dramatically when colleges are asked if they meet the full financial need of accepted students. Only 32 percent of public institutions and 18 percent of private institutions say that they make such a commitment, the report says.

The survey then asked institutions if there were groups of students, or all kinds of students, who were more likely not to receive their demonstrated financial need. While both public and private colleges reported that some students from any group would not get full packages, the data suggest that private colleges are much more likely to spend limited aid dollars on students who are better academically or who are from groups the college wants to attract.

At Colleges That Don't Meet Full Need, Students Likely Not to Receive 100% of Need

  Public Private
All students 78.1% 61.3%
Less academically qualified 0.0% 34.0%
Students not in a target group the college wants to attract 4.7% 14.2%

An area of even sharper public-private difference is evident in the use of "differential packaging," in which students receive different aid packages (larger, or with more grant aid and less of a loan obligation) because they are deemed particularly attractive to an institution. Only 15 percent of public institutions reported using differential packaging, but 63 percent of private institutions did so. Among those with differential packaging, private institutions are more likely to consider alumni status and ethnicity, while publics are more likely to favor students based on income.

Athletic ability is a key factor for both public and private institutions -- and is cited far more than status as a first generation college student. (Institutions could name multiple criteria they use.)

Criteria Used for Differential Packaging

Criteria Public Private
Alumni relationship 6.3% 17.8%
Athletic ability 31.3% 28.2%
Academic merit 87.5% 93.1%
Ethnicity 18.8% 35.1%
Gender 6.3% 5.8%
Geographic area 31.3% 25.9%
First generation 18.8% 19.0%
Income level 62.5% 36.8%
Talent (musical, artistic) 25.0% 52.3%

The association's analysis also explored the use of financial aid that is awarded without regard to financial need, commonly known as "merit-based" aid. In 1994, when NACAC conducted a similar survey, colleges reported that 27 percent of their institutional aid funds were purely merit-based and 66 percent based on need. In the current survey, 43 percent of institutional aid funds were based on factors other than need, compared to 49 percent need-based.

The top factor, as with differential packaging, is academic ability, although it is also clear that many colleges are using the SAT or ACT as a key measure of ability -- despite growing skepticism in the association about whether it is appropriate to use the tests in that way.

Criteria Used for Merit Aid

Criteria Public Private
Athletic ability 29.0% 19.4%
Class rank 47.0% 39.9%
High school grades 79.0% 75.8%
Legacy status 11.0% 11.7%
SAT/ACT scoes 83.0% 73.8%
Talent (musical, artistic, etc.) 30.0% 44.4%

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