Wellesley College Offers Easy Estimator of What Families Might Pay

Wellesley College is need-blind in admissions. It meets 100 percent of students’ demonstrated need. More than half of its students receive need-based aid.

Even so, officials at the women’s college in Massachusetts worry that its $57,000 price tag can be a turnoff. And Wellesley can’t explain its financial-aid policies to prospective students who’ve already stopped listening.

On Wednesday the college unveiled a new online tool meant to convey more quickly that going there can be affordable. The “Quick College Cost Estimator” asks just a handful of simple financial questions. Once filled out, it gives a range for what families might be expected to pay.

The estimator was designed by Phillip B. Levine, an economics professor at the college who has long been interested in issues of access. Mr. Levine started thinking about an estimator six or so years ago, he says—before the federal government required colleges to post a net-price calculator, allowing families to estimate what they would pay after grant aid. But even now, he says, his estimator serves a slightly different purpose.

The net-price calculator can be useful to families, Mr. Levine says, but “it is not simple.” While the calculator could help a student who’s already set on Wellesley get a good handle on what she might pay there, the estimator is intended to reach prospective students earlier on. And its message is basic: Wellesley doesn’t cost $57,000 for most families.

The estimator also answers a different question than the net-price calculator does, says Jennifer Desjarlais, Wellesley’s dean of admission and financial aid. What families really want to know, she says, is, “What might I be expected to pay?” Rather than showing the remaining price after grant aid, the estimator offers what’s essentially a Wellesley-specific expected family contribution. That’s the number, she says, that best answers their question.

The goal, says Mr. Levine, is to keep interested students from ruling out Wellesley based on its sticker price. “It’s our job,” he says, “to provide people with the option of coming here.”

That message might be particularly salient for low-income students, but they are not the only ones who could benefit, the professor says. Many families up the income ladder wonder if it’s worth applying for aid, and the estimator can help them decide.

While Mr. Levine created the spreadsheets of Wellesley data that inform the tool, the estimator was a group effort. Mr. Levine had help from staff members working in admissions and financial aid, institutional research and information technology. He also invited economics alumnae to test an early version and provide feedback. Some 150 of them responded, he says. Many offered advice for improving the estimator, and some said they wished it had been around when they were applying.

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