It's important to reach for your dreams when it comes to choosing colleges, but one area in which you can't afford —sometimes literally! — to reach too far is when it comes to the cost of your education. Although you might get into your top choice school despite your academic concerns (maybe you had lower test scores than the school's average or you wanted your GPA to be a little higher), one important question remains: Will you be able to pay that school's tuition?
Just as you should select one or two safety schools in terms of admission requirements, it is also important to select what I call a “financial safety school" — one that's affordable in the event that the more expensive schools you applied to don't provide enough aid for you to attend. To determine your financial safety school, you must find schools where you would be:
- Happy to attend the school
- (Pretty much) guaranteed to get in (compare your SAT or ACT scores to the median scores for the school's last freshman class to determine your chances)
- Able to afford the cost of attendance even if you receive no aid at all
That last one can be hard to determine since the cost of attendance can vary so greatly from college to college. So, what exactly counts as a financial safety school? Here's a look based on your family's level of need.
For families with high need (which means you have an Expected Family Contribution [EFC] between $5,000 and $20,000), the best financial safety school is probably an in-state public university or community college. Why? First, schools charge out-of-state students a lot more, making any school across state lines more of a challenge right from the start. Second, most financial aid is saved for in-state students, and you most likely won't be able to take money from your own state to a different one. Third, there's a better chance of scoring a helpful financial package from a public college.
If your family has moderate need (an EFC between $20,000 and $35,000), you might want to choose two financial safety schools — I'd recommend choosing either in-state or out-of-state public universities. While it may seem contradictory to keep schools both in your state and out of it on your list, either choice may actually cost you less depending on your circumstances and how you use strategy to represent your assets. In fact, proper financial planning might mean the difference between a public and private college — as long as you're considered a desirable candidate and stand a good chance of getting institutional grants and scholarships at the private school as well.
Being a low-need family (an EFC of $35,000 or more) can make a financial safety school merely a regular safety school, especially if you are willing to go into debt to fund your college education. But regardless of how little need you might have, you should still apply for aid. College costs are so high that you may actually qualify for some, even with a higher EFC. You also have to look ahead four years. Perhaps your situation will change: You might be the only member of your family in college now, but next year your brother or sister might join you, in which case your EFC might be decreased as well. So, do yourself a favor and apply this year, even if you don't qualify.
Choosing your target schools can be tough — in addition to aid, you'll have to consider academic programs, student life, availability of career resources and more — so check out our guides The Complete Book of Colleges and The Best 385 Colleges for help narrowing your search. Once you've got your list, start studying up early on how to pay for that degree with our 8 Steps to Paying Less for College.