Admissions

How to Pick Colleges with Financial Aid in Mind

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College is expensive, but that’s not news to you! In fact, 85 percent of respondents to our College Hopes & Worries survey estimated that their total college cost will be more than $50,000. Unfortunately, you won’t know how much financial aid you’ll get before you have to choose your prospective schools. One thing you will know is the sticker price (although students rarely pay that exact amount), but that leaves determining what aid package a school will offer to reduce that cost as the $64,000-a-year question.

Just because you’re unsure what financial aid number you’ll be working with doesn’t mean you have to choose your schools blindly, though. There are a few tips I offer to students searching for that best-fit school, including ways to pick colleges with financial aid in mind.


Look Beyond the Ivy League

Schools like Columbia, Harvard and Yale might all have that shiny Ivy League allure, but it’s always worth noting that many important and successful people have managed (and are still managing!) to get good educations elsewhere. More critically -- for some -- they’re doing so for less money!

Now, I’m not suggesting that Ivy League schools aren’t worth their cost. What I suggest is using specific information about individual schools to help you weigh whether a college is worth the potential cost:

- Average levels of student debt from graduates

- Access to alumni support

- Availability of career services

This information all rolls into something called Return on Investment (ROI), which I expand on in our book Best Value Colleges. If you feel a school is more expensive but has a great chance of returning your investment, great — apply for it! If it doesn’t, reconsider. However, even if the chances are low of you attending a certain school, you may want to keep it on your list, as it may benefit your financial aid requests elsewhere.

Apply to More Schools to Get More from Others

Keeping a few extra schools on your list can come in handy after your financial aid packages come back. Students frequently find that one good offer can lead to another. And if you receive a nice package from School A, you can go to comparable School B to ask them to reconsider giving you an improved package based on the other school’s offer. (Check out our guide on appealing financial aid!)

For this reason, if you need financial aid, you should apply to a variety of colleges -- including only schools where you'd be happy, of course! I recommend applying to several schools that not only fit your academic profile, but have good reputations for meeting students’ full financial need.

Don’t Be Modest in Your Applications

In many cases, scholarship and grant decisions are made by the schools themselves. And what information do they have to draw from when making those calls? The information you provide! Admission offices look at several aspects of your applications to determine scholarship eligibility:

- Grades

- Letters of recommendation

- Supplemental material

Since these will be assessed by eyes keen on attracting high-caliber students, these are your opportunities to shine!

Don’t be afraid to brag a little about your accomplishments and what you’d bring to the table. Have some grades you’re not as proud of? Don’t worry so much about it! Obviously grades are important — and you should do what you can to maximize those while still in high school — but schools look at details other than grades, too. And a great way to highlight anything not applicable on more generic portions of an application can be to craft an unforgettable essay.

Make a Joint Decision Between Student and Parent

Many parents feel that it’s somehow their duty to shield their children from harsh economic realities. They allow their children to apply to any school they like without thinking through the consequences of what an acceptance at that school would mean. So I always encourage you to talk about these considerations together in order to compile your list of colleges. Parents will need to chime in soon anyway (much of the information required to fill out financial aid forms pertains to them!), so I encourage everyone to be involved in the process as much as possible right from the start.

Besides financial aid, having both student and parent participate in the college decision process is a great idea so that everyone is on the same page from the beginning. The entire process can be incredibly frustrating, and financial considerations have an incredibly high chance of increasing that frustration. Don’t skirt around the issue! Keep it in mind as much as possible along the way.