Because of the cost involved, many students won't apply to some of the more exclusive schools in the United States, even if they have a good chance of getting in. However, you should know that if you're accepted, you may be able to attend one of them regardless of your financial situation. A small portion of these highly selective colleges practice "need-blind" admissions (a particular type of college financial aid), and for some talented students, these practices could make the difference between your second-choice school and the college education you thought you could only dream of.
Admissions decisions without thinking of finances or college financial aid
If a school practices "need-blind admissions," it means that there is an invisible firewall of sorts between admissions and the financial aid office, and the admissions officers are unaware of your financial circumstances when they evaluate your application. However, they may be able to infer whether or not you come from a family with a lot of money, or if you attend a high school full of wealthier or middle-class students -- or one with mostly lower income or underrepresented minority students. However, regardless of what they may learn about you from your application, admissions officers at schools practicing need-blind admissions are charged with making their decisions based on many factors, none of which includes your financial need, or, perhaps better phrased, your ability to pay.
Need-blind colleges - College financial aid based on ability to pay
There is a lot of debate about which colleges are truly need-blind when it comes to admissions, but most agree that the list is fairly narrow and consists of perhaps eight to twelve schools. These include the wealthiest institutions that can afford to not worry about your ability to pay, such as Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Yale, and Stanford. Students are accepted based on their merits, but a financial aid package is awarded based only on financial need and nothing else. These schools strive to meet all the demonstrated financial needs of each student, and have instituted programs to help the lowest income families attend their institutions by limiting or eliminating the loan portion of their financial aid packages either for all students (Princeton) or for those below certain income levels.
You don't have to apply to one of the most competitive schools in the country to benefit from need-blind admissions. Beyond the completely need-blind institutions are several schools that are mostly need-blind. That is, they only consider financial need for a portion of their incoming class, and in such cases are usually most concerned about applicants who might need complete or very significant financial assistance. Again, many of the most selective and wealthiest colleges and universities have a financial aid office most able to support a need-blind policy. They are also the ones most likely to meet all or most of your financial need once they admit you, and to provide more college financial aid award letters that include grants and scholarships (neither of which you'll need to repay).
Apply, and let college financial aid work itself out!
Certainly, the cost of college is important, but when the time comes, you should apply to a diverse and broad list of colleges without worrying too much about their price tags. If you can get into some of the more selective colleges (and they aren't just Ivy League institutions), you will likely find that there is significant need-based, and possibly also merit-based financial aid available to help you afford it.
Don't worry about your financial need affecting your chances for admission, since in most cases it won't. Look at colleges that interest you, and then spend some time reading the financial aid material available on their Web sites or from a financial aid counselor. Identify those that claim to be need-blind in admissions, and those that also claim to be "full-need granting". These are usually the colleges with the most to offer you financially. You can even find out the number and percentage of students receiving financial aid, and what the average aid award looks like.
Remember -- it is the total cost of your college education that will matter to you in the long run, particularly if you need to repay your college loans later down the road.
By Howard and Matthew Greene, the hosts of two PBS college planning programs and authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning series and other books.