While most private colleges offer generous financial aid packages to some students, only a few dozen have policies that allow them to say that anyone who is academically qualified for admission will be able to enroll. These policies involve admitting students without regard to financial need (so called need-blind policies) and pledging to meet the financial need of all admitted students.
Many colleges have only the first policy -- telling some students that they are admitted, but that they can’t offer enough money to meet their need -- or only the second, in which once a designated aid budget is used up, only students who can afford to pay are admitted.
Hamilton College has been in the second group, and has come close to being need blind. But on Saturday, its board voted to become need blind for all domestic students -- while continuing its commitment to giving all admitted applicants aid packages to cover their need.
The shift comes at a time whenmany private colleges are putting more money into merit aid -- which is not awarded based on financial need -- while others are pulling back from some aid commitments  that have become too expensive in their view to maintain in tough economic times.
Hamilton’s move is notable in that while it is wealthier than most private colleges, with an endowment that fell to under a half-billion dollars after the market woes of last year, it is not in the multi-billion-dollar endowment stratosphere of most of the institutions that are both need blind and meet full need.
The shift is expected to cost an additional $2 million in the annual aid budget. The college had been planning to start a fund-raising campaign soon to raise money to support a shift to need-blind admission. But at a board meeting in December where the ideals of being need blind were discussed, first one trustee, and then four others, each donated $500,000 so that the college could shift immediately.
Another trustee has since added an equal gift and others have contributed smaller amounts. So while the fund-raising drive will still start to provide long-term funds, the college is making the shift in admissions policy now.
Both the president at Hamilton, Joan Hinde Stewart, and the dean of admission and financial aid, Monica Inzer, are the first generations in their families to go to college. Hamilton has a Web page  devoted to their reflections, and those of Hamilton students and faculty members, on being the first in their families to seek a higher education.
"To me, this is personal. This is something that matters because of my history and background. I needed inspiration and aid to go to college,” said Stewart.
She said that the shift to need blind is something the college has been talking about for several years, but that she was taken by surprise when trustees were so excited about the prospect in December that they gave without hesitation to move up the timetable. She said she has never been “more humbled and exalted” by a board meeting.
Inzer said that while it may seem odd to be adding adding aid commitments in such an uncertain economy, the fiscal downturn may have had a positive impact on decision-making. “A time like this forces us to be more strategic, and we have to say that if we have one extra dollar, where are we going to spend it,” she said. “You have to really think about what are the things we really care about.”
For Inzer, the answer to the question is access. Elite private colleges, she said, need to recognize that they can’t rely forever on a student base of upper middle class and wealthier students. So colleges need to take steps to be sure they are attractive to a wide range of students. "I think the overall goal is access,” she said. “Need blind isn’t the goal. Access is the goal, and need blind is one of the levers to go there.”
For the last few years, as part of the process of getting ready to go need blind, the college had admitted students without regard to need, and only at the end of the process, after projecting aid spending and how much money the college has, did the admissions office make revisions in the admitted class to bring down the number of students needing aid.
When you “admit the class that you want,” Inzer said, a college can see how close it could be to becoming need blind. In recent years, Hamilton has been able to admit 95 percent of students on a need-blind basis, and it was only the last 5 percent admitted that were selected in part on the basis of their ability to pay.
Over the last decade, Hamilton has increased its aid budget from $14 million to $25 million. It has also reallocated funds within that budget, ending merit aid in 2007  and shifting the $1 million it was spending on merit aid to need-based aid.