Many need-blind colleges turn need-aware when considering waitlisted applicants — a dubious practice that raises questions about accessibility and privilege.

Do College Waitlists Favor the Wealthy?


  • Some need-blind colleges become need-aware, favoring waitlisted students who don't need aid.
  • Only a few universities have openly admitted to employing this practice.
  • Though committed to diversity and access, colleges have limited financial resources.

Following an unprecedented admissions cycle this year that saw record numbers of applications at top colleges and universities, thousands of students found themselves on a waitlist. Given the relatively slim chance of getting admitted off an elite school's waitlist — acceptance rates can fall as low as 0% — critics claim this enrollment tool offers students false hope.

Yet each year, some students do get a late nod from their top-choice schools, and forfeit the tuition deposit they made elsewhere.

Why are these select few chosen? What makes them stand out from the pack?

It turns out having a wealthy family helps.

The Secretive Shift From "Need-Blind" to "Need-Aware"

I first encountered this phenomenon a couple of years ago when my daughter was waitlisted at a private college. The letter informing us of her status included a line suggesting financial need would be taken into consideration when determining who ultimately gets an offer.

Without stating it as such, the university was essentially telling families of waitlisted students that if we didn't request financial aid, our child would stand a better chance of getting accepted.

Naturally, I found this rather peculiar, especially since the institution in question touted itself as "need-blind," meaning it made admission decisions independent of any financial concerns.

The university was essentially telling families of waitlisted students that if we didn’t request financial aid, our child would stand a better chance of getting accepted.

Now, I realize college admissions officers aren't exactly unaware of an applicant's financial situation. They're savvy enough to recognize indicators such as living in an affluent town, attending an expensive private school, parental occupations, an essay that discusses extensive travel abroad, and, of course, the notation on the application itself that asks if you're requesting financial aid. A checkmark in the "No, I will not require financial aid" box is a clue.

But just how common is it for institutions to move from "need-blind" to "need-aware" when it comes to waitlists? Among those that do, how many make it known to applicants? And if they don't, what are they hiding?

To get some answers, I turned to college admissions experts.

Higher Education's "Dirty Little Secret"

Having previously served as the associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania and the dean of admissions at Franklin & Marshall College, Sara Harberson now runs her own private college counseling service.

In a recent op-ed for USA Today, Harberson noted that "by the time a college goes to the waitlist, … only students who do not apply or qualify for need-based financial aid are considered. For many colleges, this is the reality of need-aware admissions, where the ability to pay is a factor in admitting students."

"Even the colleges that boast being need-blind in their evaluation process," she continued, "fall victim to a need-aware process when it comes to the waitlist."

“Even the colleges that boast being need-blind in their evaluation process fall victim to a need-aware process when it comes to the waitlist.”

Sara Harberson, Private College Counselor and Former Dean of Admissions

On her website, Harberson refers to this practice as higher education's "dirty little secret." She claims Penn, a need-blind institution, wasn't forthright about aid-seeking students not being admitted off the waitlist.

"I was never permitted to advocate for a student on the waitlist who needed financial aid," Harberson told me.

Karen Crowley, another former Penn admissions officer who now serves as the director of college counseling at Portledge School in Locust Valley, New York, wrote in an email that, unlike Harberson, she's "never seen evidence" of colleges explicitly targeting wealthy students on the waitlist.

Still, Crowley has "heard many colleges say in info sessions they are need-blind except when it comes to the waitlist" — then they become need-aware "based on budgetary constraints at that time."

Only a Handful of Colleges Admit to Being Need-Aware

In her op-ed, Harberson praised the few colleges that confess to factoring in a student's ability to pay during the waitlist process. Not many schools do this, but here's what I found among private institutions.

On its FAQ page, the University of Richmond states, "While we are need-blind in early decision, early action, and regular decision, we reserve the right to be need-aware for students on the waitlist."

“While we are need-blind in early decision, early action, and regular decision, we reserve the right to be need-aware for students on the waitlist.”

University of Richmond

Similarly, Lehigh University says, "For the vast majority of applicants we do not consider whether they are applying for financial aid or how much [aid] they might need to attend Lehigh," while also acknowledging that it's "need-aware in the waitlist process."

And at Vanderbilt University, officials "reserve the right to consider demonstrated interest and financial need on the waitlist," though it "does not mean you will be disqualified if you have financial need."

With odds clearly stacked against students requiring aid, it's a wonder any of them would accept a spot on a waitlist. Then again, there's always a chance — and there's nothing to lose by saying yes.

Do Colleges Truly Favor Wealthy Students on Waitlists?

Given these few examples, it's tempting to draw conclusions about selective colleges favoring full-pay students on the waitlist. Yet we have anecdotal evidence at best, and while these instances may seem distasteful and ignite the ire of anyone committed to the ideal of meritocracy, they don't necessarily reflect the full picture of what takes place behind closed admissions doors.

"Waitlist conversations are held close to the vest," said Maria Laskaris, a private college counselor with Top Tier Admissions and former director of admissions at Dartmouth College.

So are the statistics. Colleges can share their numbers — how many applicants were waitlisted, how many were offered admission — on the Common Data Set report, but not all do, and these figures certainly don't convey any information about financial need. In other words, we'll never truly know the full extent of the advantage being full-pay affords certain students on a waitlist.

Across 38 elite colleges in America, including five in the Ivy League, more students come from the top 1% of the income scale than from the bottom 60%.

But here's what we do know: Across 38 elite colleges in America, including five in the Ivy League, more students come from the top 1% of the income scale than from the bottom 60%. Among the richest kids, approximately 1 in 4 attends an elite college, while less than 0.5% of those from the bottom fifth do.

We can surmise that selective private institutions attract kids from wealthy families, but can we go so far as to conclude that they favor them?

We assume the roughly 65 institutions flying the banner of "need-blind," however loosely we consider that term, do not. Yet we see clear examples of these colleges flouting this convention during the waitlist process, leading cynics to conclude that it's closer to a marketing ploy than a sincere institutional commitment.

The vast majority of institutions remain need-aware, and we can only imagine the extent to which ability to pay factors into admission decisions, waitlist or otherwise.

Institutional Need Drives Need-Aware Waitlists

From colleges' perspectives, need-aware admissions makes sense. Most institutions require a certain number of students who can pay full freight. They lack large endowments and other resources necessary to meet every student's financial need.

Late in the admissions process, their financial aid coffers may be depleted. Colleges will also argue that full-pay students help subsidize scholarships that enable low-income students to attend — a Robin Hood approach to access.

"If [colleges] are skewing toward full pay off the waitlist, it is because they have to," said Crowley.

Laskaris, likewise, doesn't believe a pendulum swing to need-aware signals any lack of commitment to providing access for low-income students.

“Some schools don’t have the resources … and do have to take need into consideration. The commitment to underrepresented students is still there, but it may be actualized differently.”

Maria Laskaris, Private College Counselor at Top Tier Admissions

"Some schools don't have the resources to be that flexible and do have to take need into consideration," Laskaris said. "The commitment to underrepresented students is still there, but it may be actualized differently given the resources they have to work with."

Still, there's the simple matter of passing the smell test. When we see instances of rich kids gaining an advantage in the admissions game — as if they need another one — our noses wrinkle. It's malodorous, offensive to our sensibilities. We don't want to believe money influences such decisions. We'd rather cling to tenuous notions of merit and fairness and even playing fields.

When I received the letter informing my daughter of her waitlist status and read the bit about full-pay favoritism, I immediately knew it wasn't the right place for her or us. Whatever a college's motives might be for adopting this tactic, it doesn't earn my respect or, in this case, my money.


Feature Image: Bill Ross / The Image Bank / Getty Images