What does it take to get into Wellesley? With a student body whose average ACT score is 31, 78 percent of whom are in the top 10 percent of their graduating class, and a sticker price of $61,340, it can seem like the only people who have a chance are your typical yearbook editors, soccer captains and valedictorians. However, the diversity of the student body tells a different story. 58 percent of the Wellesley student body receives some form of financial aid. But these facts don’t change the steep price, which can be strong deterrents to students from a low income background or an underserved area. When buzz-phrases like “need blind” and “100 percent of demonstrated need met” aren’t in your vocabulary, coming to Wellesley can seem impossible. In an attempt to combat this misconception, Wellesley has partnered with QuestBridge and the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success to help low-income students and students from underserved areas hear about Wellesley and get in.
Wellesley has had a longstanding partnership with QuestBridge, an organization that works to bring low-income students to campus and provide them with a supportive community to help them transition to college. Aimed at high achieving low-income students, QuestBridge helps its scholars realize that top tier colleges are affordable and accessible. Based on standardized test scores, QuestBridge sends out letters to students in their qualifying range to invite them to apply for their College Match program. If you meet the academic (top five to 10 percent of your graduating class), financial (a family of four making less than $60,000 a year), and personal circumstance standards (usually first generation or contributing to the family’s income by working through high school), you undergo a competitive application process to become a part of the program. Once accepted, you complete the QuestBridge application that allows you to apply to up to 12 of their college partners, including Wellesley, MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Oberlin and similar colleges. The application is then viewed by the colleges, and if you are matched (one of the college accepts your application), QuestBridge guarantees a full scholarship for all four years. However, this process is extremely competitive and only around a third of the total applicants are actually matched to any of their 12 schools. If you are matched, you are guaranteed a full four-year scholarship to whichever institution accepted you. Those who are not are left to battle with financial services departments for a manageable amount of aid and fall under college’s individual aid policies. These applicants move on to later compete in the Regular Decision pool or Early Decision pool of the program.
The chance of a full scholarship to college might be the biggest perk of the program, but QuestBridge also helps students find and apply to colleges, not just pay for it. Through the list of their partner schools, scholars can look at schools they wouldn’t normally be aware of and expand their options. After being admitted, students also have access to tips, tricks and tutors to help them through the college process. Coming from schools where guidance counselors were used to help with state school applications, having this external resource can ease the pressure and confusion of writing personal essays and supplements. In the words of Catherine Gooding ’19, “Without their help I would’ve been kind of lost…At least for me, the main job of my school’s guidance counselor was ‘Hey! I need my transcript sent to this school.’” So having someone outside who was experienced with the application process relieves some of the pressure of applying to college, but not all of it.
The most crucial part of the process is still in the college’s hands: acceptance and the financial aid package. For all applicants, waiting for the decision can be the hardest part, but more hinges on these decisions for low income students. According to Jules Koury ’19, “This was literally the thing that was going to shape the way my life went. Waiting two months, and putting your life literally in someone else’s hand, was just, it was so much.” When the acceptance and financial aid decides whether you are going to community college or Wellesley, the opportunities to help you navigate the rest of your life rely on the college’s willingness to accept you.
Wellesley’s new partnership with CAAS is a step towards making sure low-income students and those from underserved communities will be assured of their competitive application status. In a system that is becoming increasingly competitive, SAT tutors and private college counselors are becoming more and more common, but they are exclusively available to the upper classes. These advantages place those who can’t afford them at a disadvantage. In an attempt to level the playing field, the CAAS has created an alternative approach to college education. Making students think more long term, the process starts in their freshman year of high school. Students can create a free account that includes a digital “locker” where they put copies of their schedules, school assignments and other high points of their high school career, such as extracurricular achievements and awards. By starting this process freshman year, the CAAS hopes to help close the gap between students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Their goal is to “get low-income, underrepresented, and first-generation students thinking about college earlier and create the expectation that college is FOR THEM. [The CAAS wants] to send a strong message that college is affordable, that they can be successful, and that the top schools in the country want students like them.” Through the online platform,“students and their families [also] have access to free support from Admissions and Financial Aid personnel at individual colleges,” according to the CAAS. Wellesley is one of only 90 institutions in the United States to adopt this platform, six of which are in Massachusetts.
While this initiative is admirable and a step in the right direction, staying at Wellesley, not to mention thriving here, is a different story. Paying for Wellesley and all its invisible expenses creates a completely different set of obstacles. While every student has varying needs financially, emotionally and academically, one thing remains constant for every student on the low income spectrum: something that costs money can create a potential uncertainty or sacrifice. This ranges from things as going out with friends to buying textbooks, purchasing that flight home for Thanksgiving or trying to secure summer housing.
While the suspense is unavoidable, Wellesley has tried to guarantee that once accepted, all of your financial needs will be met. Despite our comparatively generous financial aid office, many low-income students and their families, not just QuestBridge scholars, are left wondering how to make ends meet while they are in college.
Wellesley and QuestBridge both continuously told students that “college is affordable,” and that they could come here and thrive, but their actions speak differently. Students who were told they would graduate debt free are left taking out loans to cover Wellesley’s tuition. And according to Alicia Olivio ’19, “debt is the scariest thing for a low income family.” While on a calculator the numbers might seem manageable, when you consider the real complexities of a family’s financial situation.” With only nine people in the staff directory for SFS and 60 percent of the school on financial aid, something doesn’t add up. Inundated with requests and delicate situations, calculating financial aid is a tricky and personal process.
Interestingly, when browsing the “Wellesley fast facts” page on the admissions website, the college draws attention to geographic and racial diversity, but fails to mention the level of socioeconomic diversity (apart from the percent of students on financial aid and the average package). But, when you look at the Wellesley profile on the QuestBridge page, there is a whole category dedicated to socio-economic diversity. This omission highlights the invisibility of low-income students as a factor in Wellesley’s diversity and an important part of the Wellesley community.