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Last updated December 1, 2023

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Does Family Income Affect College Admissions?

Key Takeaway

Income can impact college admissions. Need-aware schools can favor students who can pay full tuition. That's why it is important to apply to need-blind schools as well. Understanding financial aid terms and policies is crucial when building a strategic college list.

College admissions has been in the news a lot lately. From the Varsity Blues debacle in 2019 to the recent conversations about student debt forgiveness, money in particular is a hot topic.

Obviously, income is really important when it comes to paying for college (sadly, those tuition bills won’t pay themselves!). But does income actually affect your admissions chances?

The short answer is that it does and it doesn’t.

Let’s get into it.

Terms to Know

Before diving in, we should get familiar with some financial aid terms.

"Financial need," also known as “demonstrated need,” is the difference between a school’s cost of attendance and your family’s expected family contribution (EFC). Essentially, it's the amount of aid—be it loans, grants, or scholarships—that you’ll need to cover your education costs.

So if you have a low EFC, then your demonstrated need will be high.

Now, these terms are important because colleges and universities respond to “demonstrated need” in different ways.

"Need-aware" schools factor in your financial need during admissions. They might reject students who can't afford their cost of attendance if the school knows that it can't meet the student’s financial need. At “need-aware” schools, your income may affect your admissions outcomes. Most schools fall into this category.

On the other hand, "need-blind" schools don't consider financial need at all during admissions. At “need-blind” schools, your income won’t affect whether or not you should be admitted. But remember, some of these schools may still be need-aware for international applicants. Be sure to read the school’s policies closely on their admissions page.

Lastly, there are schools that "meet full demonstrated need." These schools commit to covering the full difference between a student’s EFC and their total cost of attendance. They usually do this through a mix of scholarships and loans, with scholarships often making up most of the aid.

How Financial Need May Affect Admissions

So income (or, more specifically, the ability to pay for college versus needing financial aid to pay), can definitely affect your admissions chances.

Because most colleges are so expensive, many families rely on financial aid to make it possible. Understanding how your income could influence your college admissions process is really important as you’re building your college list.

Need-aware schools are need-aware because they see students who require a lot of financial aid as a potential risk. Especially if the college itself is having financial problems, the admissions office might worry about admitting too many students who need significant aid. If they admit too many, they may not be able to meet everyone's needs. As grim as it may sound, students who can pay full price tend to be a safer bet financially.

On the other hand, need-blind schools are committed to admitting the best students, regardless of their ability to pay. Need-blind schools, especially ones that meet full demonstrated need, are harder to find. That’s because they have to be really financially stable institutions. And not only are they harder to find, they also tend to have lower acceptance rates to begin with!

So that’s the reality. Is it fair? Absolutely not. But with this information in mind, you can be smart about which schools you apply to.

Building Your Strategy

If you’re relying on scholarships or loans to attend college, you should be aware of these terms and find schools that have strong need-based and merit-based financial aid awards. Applying to need-aware schools is okay, but make sure you balance your list with need-blind schools and those that meet full demonstrated need.

There are lots of colleges that are committed to supporting all students, regardless of their financial background. And at these schools, there are scholarships and financial aid programs specifically targeted at helping students with low EFCs.

So if you can’t pay for college out-of-pocket (like the vast majority of students!), you’ll still have lots of great options. You’ll just need to keep financial aid considerations in mind as you search for and apply to colleges.


Income can potentially influence the college admissions process, with some need-aware schools possibly favoring students who can afford full tuition. Don't let this discourage you from applying, but also be sure to apply to need-blind schools, too. Understanding financial aid terms and policies can help you build a strategic list.

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