College Guy: A critical question – Do you need financial aid?

Published: 11/16/2020 5:01:26 PM

Question: Will applying for financial aid impact my chances of being accepted to college?

Answer: As with so many questions in college admission, the easy answer is, “it depends.” I will unpack that more below, but let’s not put the “getting in” cart before the “paying for it” horse.

First, I am going to answer your question with a question. Do you need financial aid to attend college? If your response is “yes,” then you should apply for financial aid. An acceptance to a college or university is meaningless if you do not have the resources to afford it. If your response is “I don’t know,” then let’s consider how you can figure that out.

There is no question that college tuition has soared to unconscionable highs, while federal and state funding is shamelessly shrinking. Take New Hampshire, for example, where we rank last in state funding per capita for higher education, with the second-highest average in-state tuition at public four-year institutions in the nation. Meanwhile, student debt is on the rise and is second to only mortgage debt as the highest consumer debt category. With over $36,000 in average student loan debt, New Hampshire ranks as the third-highest state in the country.

So, how do you figure out what the price tag is at the schools to which you hope to apply?

Thanks to a congressional mandate, colleges and universities that receive federal funding must publish their school’s Total Cost of Attendance (COA) that includes not only tuition, room, and board, but also averages for fees, books, supplies, transportation, and personal expenses. In New Hampshire, this could range from $27,162 per year for in-state residents at Keene State College to $79,967 about an hour north on Interstate 91 at Dartmouth College.

Once you have determined the total cost of attendance (the sticker price), you need to understand how much of that cost you will be expected to pay, based on your financial circumstances. To figure out the exact Net Price of attending a college (the amount you will pay out of pocket after financial aid) you have to apply for financial aid. However, for a quick estimate of what you might be asked to pay for each college, you can use the Net Price Calculator. This is a federally mandated tool that each school has on their financial aid website. This resource allows you to see a ballpark financial aid package for which you might be eligible.

Armed with a better idea of whether you will need – or qualify for – financial aid to attend college, let’s return to the heart of your question of whether colleges consider a student’s ability to pay when making admission decisions. First some definitions. If a college uses “need-blind” admission, it means your application will be reviewed and decided upon without any consideration for your ability to pay. There are just over 100 schools in this country that have the resources in their financial aid budget to use this approach (Dartmouth is one). In this case, the straight answer to your question would be “no.” The majority of colleges and universities have “need-aware” policies, meaning at some point in the review of your application, they might take into account how much financial aid you need. Therefore, a student who can afford the full cost might have better odds of being admitted, and the answer to your question would be “yes.” Is this just or equitable? No, but sadly it is the reality of higher education in this nation.

Don’t despair, however, as there are thousands of colleges and universities and as many pathways to earning a degree as you can imagine. It may mean considering schools that might not have been the top on your list or taking advantage of transfer agreements like the one between NHTI and UNH that reduce the total costs of achieving your bachelor’s degree. What is most important is that you be an informed consumer, get all the facts, and weigh your options.

A great place to start is with your school counselor or by using the free resources and counseling on the college search and financial aid process through The New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation ( If you are applying to college this year, DO NOT DELAY! Financial aid application deadlines are just as – or more – important as admission application deadlines.

Do you have a question about college admission, the impact of the pandemic, and applications?Submit them to

Brennan Barnard is the Director of College Counseling and Outreach at The Derryfield School and the College Admission Program Advisor at The Making Caring Common project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is co-author of the book, “The Truth about College Admission: A Family Guide to Getting In and Staying Together.”

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