Most Affordable Private Colleges for Low-Income Families


The past seven days for me have been good for receiving new college-related data. Last week, I received some very useful information about the highest- and lowest-paying college majors. Yesterday I got a report about the most affordable private colleges for low-income families.

This surprising -- and welcome -- data is good news for many families who think college, especially private colleges, are beyond their ability to pay. I'd like to share this news today.

Selectivity Can Lead to High Endowments

The report comes from and ranks the most affordable private, four-year colleges for low-income families in the United States. The research shows that despite having the highest list prices, the nation's most selective schools tend to offer the lowest out-of-pocket expenses for low-income students after scholarships, grants and cost of living are taken into account.

The analysis also shows that a third of the 100 most affordable colleges in the country are concentrated in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. So if you're coming from a low-to-lower income family and are looking for a private college in the Northeast, then your chances of finding some candidates there may be the most favorable.

Much of this report comes from The Hamilton Project, part of the Brookings Institution, and the college costs referenced include tuition and room and board. “Low-income students" are defined as being in the bottom 20th percentile of family income.

From my personal perspective, having been involved in college admissions counseling since the late 1980s, I am happy to finally see some quantification of the fact that I have been preaching for decades. The fact is: There is evidence that the more selective a college is, the more likely it is to be “affordable" for qualified applicants coming from low-income families.

Another way to look at this is that there seems to be a positive relationship between selectivity and endowment strength. Of course, as with all subjective generalizations, there will be certain exceptions. However, since endowments fuel a large part of need-based aid, it's not hard to understand this relationship.

Getting right to an overview graphic, HeyTutor features a bar chart that shows the net-price relationship I mentioned.

As HeyTutor notes, this chart “shows a clear correlation between cost and selectivity. Tuition data from the National Center for Education Statistics and selectivity classifications from Barron's indicate that the most competitive schools have the highest comprehensive costs (including room and board), but also the lowest out-of-pocket costs for students from the bottom income group. This means that students from low-income families should not be discouraged by high sticker prices at selective schools. Often, these schools will be the most affordable option while providing more educational resources that will better prepare them for the future."

That observation makes me happy because, finally, information is available in graphic form to back up the contention I have been maintaining for so long. Many low-income families find the fact that a higher-selectivity private school can be less expensive for them, in some cases less expensive than state universities, counterintuitive. Understanding this concept can open up a much wider array of candidate schools for low-income high schoolers.

HeyTutor makes an important point:

The main issue is that many low-income families do not understand the financial aid process ... the complexity of the financial aid system is a strong deterrent for low-income students applying to college. The large amount of paperwork and the uncertainty about financial aid until the end of the application process disincentivizes even high-achieving students from applying to selective schools. Simplifying the financial aid application process is an important first step in addressing these issues.

That final sentence poses a significant challenge. When applying to a private college, in most cases three separate financial aid forms are needed: the FAFSA, CSS Profile and a college-specific aid form. As noted, this can be a daunting, sometimes completely overwhelming, task for low-income families and suppresses the desire to explore a broader selection of private colleges.

Getting to the specific schools related to this discussion, HeyTutor lists the 100 most affordable private colleges for low-income students. Looking at just the top five, we find:

1. Duke University

- Average net price ($0-$30,000):-$1,070

- Average net price ($30,001-$48,000):$827

- Published total price of attendance: $69,558

- Percentage of students paying full price: 32%

- Undergraduate enrollment: 6,696

- Location: Durham, NC

At -$1,070, Duke University has the lowest average net price for low-income families making $0-$30,000. The negative net price is likely the result of aid awarded to low-income students covering costs not included in the published price of attendance (for example travel and participation in certain clubs/activities). Duke University offers two academic paths for undergraduates: the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences and the Pratt School of Engineering. In addition to its affordability for low-income students, Duke is known for its stellar college basketball team and rivalry with nearby UNC-Chapel Hill. Duke University had an 8.6 percent acceptance rate for the Class of 2022.

2. Harvard University

- Average net price ($0-$30,000): -$230

- Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $632

- Published total price of attendance: $66,609

- Percentage of students paying full price: 28%

- Undergraduate enrollment: 9,965

- Location: Cambridge, MA

Harvard University was founded in 1636, making it the oldest university in the country. Harvard is known as being one of the most selective universities in the country as well, admitting less than 5 percent of applicants. Many of the 50 fields of study at Harvard are interdisciplinary, like “History and Literature" or “Chemistry and Physics." For low-income families making $30,001-$48,000, Harvard has the lowest average net price on this list at $632 per year. Harvard is also an Ivy League college.

3. Stanford University

- Average net price ($0-$30,000): $0

- Average net price ($30,001-$48,000):$2,548

- Published total price of attendance: $66,184

- Percentage of students paying full price: 33%

- Undergraduate enrollment: 7,064

- Location: Stanford, CA

Stanford University is the only West Coast university on this list. Located in the Bay Area, about 30 miles from San Francisco, Stanford combines a college town setting with easy access to a big city. Undergraduates can pursue more than 65 different majors, and the school actively encourages participation in research programs and study abroad. Only one-third of Stanford students pay the full tuition price, and the average student in the $0-$30,000 income bracket will pay nothing out of pocket.

4. Berea College

- Average net price ($0-$30,000): $452

- Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $2,197

- Published total price of attendance: $32,994

- Percentage of students paying full price: 0%

- Undergraduate enrollment: 1,670

- Location: Berea, KY

Located in Appalachia, the Christian-affiliated Berea College was the first college in the South to become coeducational and interracial. The college is notable for its mission of providing higher education to students with limited economic means. As such, no students at Berea pay the full published price. Instead, Berea relies on endowment income, donations, and financial aid to cover the costs of attendance. All students must work a minimum of 10 hours per week as part of their aid package.

5. Princeton University

- Average net price ($0-$30,000): $1,948

- Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $1,771

- Published total price of attendance: $63,850

- Percentage of students paying full price: 40%

- Undergraduate enrollment: 5,394

- Location: Princeton, NJ

Princeton University is located about halfway between Philadelphia and New York City. This university offers academic programs in humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and engineering. Princeton students live in one of six residential colleges, which provide housing as well as a common social outlet. Many students also choose to join an eating club in their junior and senior years. All Princeton undergraduates are required to write a senior thesis. According to the Princeton admissions website, 82 percent of seniors graduated debt-free in 2017-2018. Like many other colleges on this list, Princeton University is a member of the Ivy League.

See HeyTutor's full listing for the complete list, as well as their methodology.

Bottom line: If you're a high schooler in a low-income family and you're targeting higher education, don't let private college “sticker shock" keep you from considering a private school because you think it's unaffordable. Read the entire HeyTutor report and start your college search well informed.