Working in the Office of Admission & Financial Aid, a lot of the questions people ask me have to do with the bottom line: What do I need to get in? What are you looking for in applicants? And exactly how much is this school going to cost? It makes sense why people ask questions like these. Applying to college can be nebulous and at times downright confusing, and it’s normal to want concrete information.
What’s tricky about the college process is the element of uncertainty. A lot of what we’re taught as kids has to do with cause and effect…Study hard and you’ll get a good grade. Practice an instrument or a sport and you’ll get better at it. Touch a hot stove and you’ll get burned. These lessons empower us to control what we can in life. But when it comes to applying to college, we have to give up a lot of that control. We still more or less control the inputs of the process (the grades we earn, the classes we choose to take, the effort we put into applications, etc.). But while all these factors determine how competitive our application will be, there’s simply no way to guarantee a particular outcome (at least when it comes to colleges with selective, holistic admission such as Olin). At the end of the day, someone’s chances of being admitted have to do not only with their individual application but with the applicant pool as a whole; there will always be more bright, talented, and hardworking applicants than spots available. So I can’t share any admission secrets or hacks because there genuinely aren’t any. For better or for worse, there’s no bottom line in the admission process.
On the surface, the same thing may appear to be true when it comes to financial aid. There’s no single number I can point to that everyone pays (the cost of attendance or “sticker price” advertised on a college’s website? Rarely is that actually what you end up paying…confusing, right?). The difference with financial aid, however, is that you actually can get an accurate picture of what to expect ahead of time. There’s no one-size-fits-all bottom line number because different students pay different amounts, but you have the ability to predict your personal bottom line.
Here’s how it works: Every college is required to have a Net Price Calculator available on its website, which is a tool that provides the most accurate prediction of the cost and financial aid you might qualify for at that particular school.* You answer some questions (about your finances, academics, and/or whatever else the school uses to determine financial aid), and it spits out estimated cost and financial aid information that is specific to you.
It’s worth taking a look at Net Price Calculators for every school you’re interested in, not just one, because every college awards financial aid differently. For example, at Olin, every student receives the Olin Tuition Scholarship which covers half of their tuition for all four years, and on top of that, we meet 100% of demonstrated financial need for US citizens and permanent residents based on their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Other schools’ policies will be different. That’s where people like me (financial aid counselors) come in…we are here to give you insight into our individual schools’ financial aid philosophies and policies. Speaking from personal experience, financial aid counselors are typically super friendly and genuinely want to answer your questions, provide accurate information, and help you.
Now you could just wait until you actually get your financial aid packages from the schools you get accepted to, but the benefit of doing all this now is that knowing the bottom line is the start of the conversation about paying for college, not the end of it. There are big questions you and your family will need to consider after you find out how much a school will cost, such as: Am I able and willing to pay this amount for this school? What is the value of a degree from this school? (This could have to do with tangible outcomes like graduation rates, average starting salaries, or career and graduate school placement, as well as intangible factors like the campus community). If I choose to attend this school, how will I go about financing it? Have there been any major changes to my family’s financial situation that I need to bring to the school’s attention? These are the important questions I can’t answer for you; they are up to each individual student and family, and they take time.
So while I would love to feel like Oprah (You get a scholarship! Everyone gets a scholarship!) or a fortune teller with a crystal ball, finances are one part of the college process that don’t need to remain a mystery. And remember, we’re here to help.
*I should note here that it is still an estimate and financial aid information can be updated at any time!