Don’t look at the price tag.
In the United States, well-reputed schools’ annual tuition, fees, and expenses per student easily exceed the median household income. Many students see those numbers and immediately rule out the possibility of ever attending a prestigious university. But it’s not that simple.
That annual cost estimate reflects the price of providing an education, along with the many other services on campus, to each student. But the trick is, it’s not generally an indicator of what students pay for their education. So don’t let the bulky number that pops up when you Google “how much does Stanford cost per year?” sumo your dreams quite yet.
The Sales Event of the Year
Think of the price tag on your education as the MSRP on a new car. It’s what’s written on the sticker, but it’s probably not what you’re going to pay. Because you’re almost inevitably eligible for a discount—or a few of them. In the world of higher education, your discounted price will be the result of two factors: your academic potential and the school’s endowment and research programs.
Basically, academic potential is your likelihood for success in higher education. There’s no objective measurement for academic potential, which is why admissions officers exist. They use your application to make a guess at how likely you are to be successful at their school.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that schools are businesses. Like all organizations, they rely on income and reputation for their continued existence. And while it may seem counter intuitive, schools want students that will be wildly successful a lot more than they want students that will pay tuition and fees.
That’s because their reputation rides on their graduates knocking the baseball of life out of the park. And reputation gets them the big bucks: more students, more grants, and more endowments. Which means they’d rather invest a full-ride scholarship in a student with stellar academic potential than accept full-price tuition and fees from a student with who may or may not do well. And that’s why academic potential matters.
Academic Potential Factor 1: The Numbers
Test scores and GPA used to be the silver bullets to academic potential, and incredible numbers are still the heavy hitters in determining academic potential. However, as grade inflation has reached epidemic proportions and more and more students clamor to get a degree, schools have begun to consider other factors more heavily when identifying academic potential. That’s where Factor 2 and 3 come into play.
Academic Potential Factor 2: The Story
What’s the point of those onerous motivation and personal history essays anyway? In short, admissions officers are searching for evidence that you have personal characteristics, such as passion, grit, tenacity, or inspiration, that will help you achieve tremendous success in academia (watch for our upcoming article on writing great application essays). A killer essay shows these characteristics through a compelling story.
Your story may be that you’ve been obsessed with solar panels since the age of 5, or that you grew up in a refugee camp and beat the odds as an immigrant in North Dakota. Whatever your story, writing it well is key. Yes, this system favors strong writers. It also favors people who are willing to put in the work and get the help they need to write a great essay. It’s the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that grit and tenacity they are looking for, and excellent practice for all the essays you’ll be writing for classes.
Academic Potential Factor 3: Diversity
Schools are expected (and sometimes required) to have a student body that more or less reflects the demographics of the region. Sure, it would be great if everyone began the race at the same starting line, and we could just reward those who were most successful without considering their gender, color, or income. But as it stands, our social system givessome group a significant head start through no virtue of their own . Ensuring that a representative proportion of those who had to start 10 paces back get a chance to keep running the race is the least we can do.
In addition, many donors of scholarship funding seek to support individuals that are overcoming this in-built systematic social discrimination by getting an education.
That means for each of the below that applies to you, you’ll get a bonus point or two in the academic potential department:
- Racial minority
- Ethnic minority
- Non-native English speaker
- Low income
- Non-US citizen
Academic Potential Factor 4: The Hole-in-One
Counter-intuitively, all-star athleticism buys you winner-takes-all academic potential. Even if you never really learned to read well. (This only applies to undergraduate degrees. Graduate program admission remain uncorrupted by collegiate sports.) This bizarre exception is so widely practiced, in fact, that it became a massive back-door entry to academia, which was only recently uncovered in this blow-out scandal.
That is not to say that excellent scholars are not or cannot be outstanding athletes. That is to say that, as previously mentioned, schools are ultimately businesses that rely on income and a great reputation. Crazy good athletes attract huge crowds of paying fans and loads of press. And they go on to professional sports careers that schools are proud to add to their list of achievements. So if you’re high-achieving in both sports and academics, more points for you! Leverage your athletic prowess to get your dream education.
And if you’re just high-achieving in sports…well, you still get all the points. And the university will take care of the academic stuff for you.
Academic Potential in Sum
Academic potential is a game of both quality and quantity. Think Malala. She’s a female, low-income, non-native English speaker minority immigrant with outsized academic performance and a story of grit and determination so inspiring as to make her a household name. And she’s been offered full scholarships and honorary degrees at renown institutions around the globe.
You needn’t narrowly escape death to be admitted to school, but the point is:
- the better your GPA…
- and the stronger your test scores and…
- the more compelling your story…
- and the less American-born middle-class white male you are…
- or, of course, the more likely you are to get recruited to pro sports…
…the higher your academic potential.
So what does academic potential get you?
A Funded Education
Scholarships. Fellowships. Grants. We all want them. But where does the money come from? In large part, from endowments.
Endowments are the institution’s cache of funds. It comes from myriad sources, including sizable alumni donations and bequeathed estates. Many donors specify who their donation should support. (For example, students of a particular minority, geography, or in a particular field of study; this is another reason why diversity helps your academic potential.)
In general, the more reputable the school, the bigger the endowment. And the bigger the endowment, the more students get discounts on their tuition, fees, and expenses. (We get this question frequently: Very few scholarships hand you a check; they just cancel out the cost on your bill. That means you can’t, for example, live in a hyper-cheap apartment and send the extra money home. You just have to live in the dorm room that’s been paid for you on campus.)
In addition to endowments, reputable institutions also win funding for large research programs. That means teaching assistantships and research assistantships. In these cases the student becomes a type of employee of the school, with compensation being cancellation of your tuition and fees (including health insurance) and maybe even a living stipend paid directly to you.
So What’s the Sale Price?
The most prestigious schools have massive endowments and concomitant generous funding opportunities, and they also charge the most for an education. That means that, ironically, a steep price tag may well be an indicator of abundant opportunities at a full-ride education.
The students with the highest academic potential at the schools with the largest endowments get the steepest discounts on their education. If you’re a golden ticket, like Malala, you’ll probably have multiple full ride scholarships to Ivy League schools to choose from.
So don’t pay too much attention to the ticket price. Far more important is the percentage of the student body that gets financial assistance, and on average, what percentage of their total costs are covered. From there, consider your academic potential. If you’re above or below average in terms of academic potential, then your discount probably will be, too.
Watch for our upcoming article on maximizing your academic potential in your application process.