I just wrote an obnoxiously long comment on Tess's Glee post, so I decided to go on and write a full post about financial aid. Thanks for the inspiration, Tess!
Not even an hour ago I made a reference to Glee in an admissions interview. I was watching an episode the other day myself and was a little surprised that Finn is so focused on getting a scholarship so that he can go to college. He insists that in order for it to be possible for him to go to college, he'll need a scholarship--either in music or football, his two areas of specific talent.
In Oberlin's Financial Aid world, what he says he wants is called merit-based aid, but what it seems he actually needs is need-based aid.
Need-based aid at Oberlin works something like this: odds are, your family can't afford to pay out of pocket for the entirety of Oberlin. (Mine certainly can't, and most can't.) Because of this, with the help of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the CSS Profile (the College Board's financial profile) Oberlin's Financial Aid Office figures out what your family is able to pay, and from there they make up the difference. For the most part, that will be through grants, or money you don't have to pay back. Other than grants, your financial aid package will probably include some loans, though Oberlin doesn't really want any student graduating with more than $20,000 in debt, so the Financial Aid office typically limits yearly loans to $5,000 or less. Work-study is also a common part of a need-based package, which basically guarantees that you can get a job on campus in order to put money directly towards your college costs if you want to.
Basically, Oberlin wants to make sure that any student admitted can afford to come here. Period.
Merit aid is in addition to need-based aid. In the College of Arts & Sciences, it's based on your academic record; my understanding is that merit aid is generally offered to the top 10% or so academically of the admitted class. In the Conservatory, it's based on your musical talent. Since we have Division III athletics, Finn isn't going to be getting a football scholarship to come here--he'd need to get his Spanish grades up to get an academic scholarship in the College or impress the Conservatory by hitting that high B. If he wanted to play football, he certainly still could--but he'd be doing it for the love of the sport, not because he had to in order to afford to attend.
Hopefully this will initiate a rush of questions which I'm happy to answer--after all, it was not so long ago that I was like Finn and convinced that the only way I could afford college was by schools offering me money because of my academic merit, and I've certainly learned through experience much more about how the system works.