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Some colleges waitlist students who can't afford tuition

Graduates attend the 2012 George Washington University Commencement at National Mall in Washington, D.C.

If you’re applying to college, you probably hope to get in based on your grades or activities – and that killer essay you’ve proofread a dozen times. But what if the decision came down to how much money your family makes?  George Washington University’s student newspaper reports this week that the university has been wait-listing students based, in part, on their need for financial aid.

"Need-blind" policies are the ideal, says Barmak Nassirian, policy analyst with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. In a perfect world, he says colleges would accept the best students and then figure out how to pay for their education.

"That’s the idealized state of affairs, where the admissions office doesn’t know whether you’re a millionaire or you happen to come from a low-income background," Nassirian says.

But with less public funding for higher education, and more students needing financial aid, not all institutions can afford to be so idealistic.

Joyce Smith is CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. She says more universities now have to look at students’ ability to pay.

"It would be foolhardy not to," Smith says.  But colleges shouldn’t encourage a bunch of applications they know they won’t accept. "You have to be transparent in your admission approach."

Nassirian says colleges might also want to tout need-blind policies because they bring in more applicants. And since most of those students will inevitably get rejected, it makes the school appear more selective.

"A lot of this stuff is because of the pressure-cooker environment that various ranking schemes have created,” he says. “Institutions are in this perpetual state of competition with each other.”

In a statement, George Washington University officials say financial need is taken into account, but only at the very end of the admissions process. But the university is changing how it describes the policy – from "need-blind" to "need-aware." 

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