An article written by Marian Wang on Pro Publica poses the sticky question in the title above. To receive financial aid, a student and their family must undergo a thorough investigation into their financial lives. To quote from the article:
Many universities have access to comprehensive financial profiles, sometimes down to the type of cars a family drives. Some analyze patterns and interpret even the most subtle indicators from students, such as the order in which schools are listed on the federal financial-aid application, or even how long a student stays on the phone with an admissions officer.
However, information transfer is not a two-way street. Universities, even the most charitable, generally consider the metrics used to offer financial aid packages to be in the same category as state secrets. Again from the article:
Take Newman University, a Catholic liberal-arts college based in Kansas.
What are the actual criteria the college uses to determine who gets aid and how much? “That’s proprietary information,” said Pam Johnson, Newman’s interim dean of admissions and financial aid. “It’s part of our competitive strategy.”
The full article is well worth your time.