On our recent college odyssey, we heard about a lot of need-blind admissions policies, and no loan/100% of need met financial aid policies. These are mostly good things but perhaps not as good as they sound on the surface, so it’s worth unpacking them.

Need-blind admissions simply means that the admissions officer evaluating your application does not have access to your financial information and does not consider your family’s finances in evaluating your application. In and of itself, a need-blind admissions policy is no guarantee that a student will receive any financial aid. It just means that affordability is not a factor the admissions office will use in evaluating the student– and it may lead to an admissions offer that the student should not accept.

Some schools have a policy of meeting 100% of demonstrated need for accepted students. Again, some definitions are required. Your need is probably not as great as you think it is. For purposes of these aid policies, demonstrated need is the difference between cost of attendance and your family’s Expected Family Contribution as calculated by the CSS PROFILE or FAFSA. Unfortunately, most families find that their EFC is quite a bit larger than what they could comfortably pay out of cash flow. So when a school talks about meeting your need, the amount they’re coming up with might be quite a bit less than what you think you need, especially if you haven’t estimated your EFC. And a school can use any tool in the financial aid toolkit to meet your need, including unsubsidized student loans and Parent PLUS loans.

Some schools then go a step further and have a no-loan financial aid policy, which means that they will meet 100% of demonstrated need through scholarships and grants. When a school combines need-blind admissions and meeting 100% of need through scholarships and grants, you’ve got a school that hopes to ensure that students from a lot of different backgrounds can accept admission with reasonable expectations of graduating without an overwhelming debt burden.

However, even in these cases, many students still end up borrowing. For example, according to College Navigator, at one of the schools we toured that had a 100% of need met, no loans policy, more than 1/3 of students are taking out federal loans at about the maximum annual level– a higher borrowing rate than another nearby school that does include loans in its aid packages; two more had 1/4 of students are taking out federal student loans, with the average annual loan amount above $5,000. The other three 100%/no loan schools we visited each had around 10% of students borrowing. So, while these policies are good, in many cases they do not fully close the affordability gap. You can find borrowing rates by school on College Navigator by typing in the school and expanding the Financial Aid section.

One other thing about need-blind, 100% of need met, no loans schools: A big driver behind these aid policies in many cases is the philosophy that college should be a four-year experience for every student. So don’t expect that you will be able to further cut costs by graduating early. More often than not, we were told that these schools give placement but no credit for AP, IB or dual-credit high school courses, and that they offered these aid policies to ensure that students could attend for four years.