“You can’t believe everything you hear.” I’ve heard this adage many times, but I haven’t always been great at following it.
For years, I hated Brussels sprouts. Or at least, I thought I did. When I was young, my mom told me that our whole family hated Brussels sprouts and that as a result, they had been banned from the house. I, having no reason not to trust my mom, believed her. I was the youngest child, and it made perfect sense to me that there could have been some catastrophic incident involving Brussels sprouts that took place before I could remember.
Later, however, as a preteen starting to take my own steps into the world, I did something bold and rebellious: I succumbed to peer pressure at a friend’s house and ate a Brussels sprout. I had declined the dish as it was being passed around the table, citing my longstanding hatred of the vegetable, and my friend’s dad said, “You’ve never had them like I make them. Just try one.” So I did. I was taken aback—the roasted sprout was perfectly crisp and charred on the outside and tender on the inside, coated with a delicate layer of olive oil and the perfect spice blend. It was delicious.
Upon confronting my mother, I discovered that I’d been deceived. The reason she had told me that we all hated Brussels sprouts was simply because she hated them. Apparently, as a child she was forced to eat soggy, flavorless boiled Brussels sprouts and was forbidden from leaving the table until every last one was gone.
This last part is important here, and not because I’m trying to throw my grandma’s cooking under the bus. The point is that when my mom told that fateful lie, she wasn’t exactly lying. She genuinely believed it was true because it was her truth, a truth that was informed by her personal experiences with Brussels sprouts. I, in turn, believed her because as humans we tend to believe the things that people we trust tell us.
The same thing happens in the college process. In my conversations with families about financial aid, I’ve heard all kinds of myths, such as:
“We make too much money for financial aid” (Truth: Income is one of several factors that determine financial aid eligibility, and there is no specific income cutoff)
“There’s no financial aid available to middle-class families” (Truth: See above)
“If my parents are divorced, we can just pick whichever parent we want to put on the FAFSA” (Truth: There are specific guidelines regulating which parent(s) you must report on the FAFSA)
“It’s never a good idea to borrow student loans” (Truth: Student loans can be a useful tool for many families, and the choice to borrow involves several different factors and is individual to each family)
“I can choose to declare myself independent on the FAFSA because I’ll get more money if I do so” (Truth: Specific circumstances determine your dependency status, it's not a choice)
“The financial aid process punishes families for saving for college” (Truth: Assets are included in the FAFSA formula because it is reasonable to expect that families who have had the opportunity to save for college use some of those savings for their intended purpose, but the formula is much more heavily driven by income than assets, and there are several asset protections factored in)
Very often, as we work through these misconceptions, families will reveal that they heard the information in question from a friend or family member. Now I’m not saying that your friends are intentionally lying to you. Just like with the Brussels sprouts, each of these false statements has a root that can be traced back to someone’s personal experience. When it comes to something as complex and individualized as financial aid, however, we tend to speak through the lens of our own experience without always understanding how others’ experiences may differ. So when we repeat our experiences, they can inadvertently sound like universal truths. We assume that what happened to us is what will happen to someone else, and vice versa. This can quickly snowball into an absurd game of telephone.
My mom (who I eventually forgave for her vegetable lies) remembers being terrified by the prospect of paying for college based on what she was hearing from other parents: “I thought we might get some financial aid, but I figured it would mostly be loans and that it might not be worth the hassle of completing the FAFSA. I was much more focused on scholarships because I thought that’s where all the money was. I was convinced that you’d be able to get a swimming scholarship*, but in the end the vast majority of the financial aid we qualified for was need-based.”
I’m incredibly grateful that my mom decided to apply for financial aid, and it worries me to think that she might not have based on what well-intentioned people whose situations were different from ours told her. And so, I’d like to ask for your help: Please be thoughtful about what you say and what you hear about the college process, especially this time of year when it can seem like college talk is all around us. You have real power to influence those around you, even more power than we in the admission and financial aid profession have. What you say matters.
On that note, Olin’s deadline for incoming students to submit the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is coming up on February 15. Please reach out to us at any time with questions!
*Mom, I love you, but I had exactly zero chance of swimming at an NCAA Division 1 school!