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Private College or Out-of-State Public University for Family With High Financial Need?

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My son is looking at a few big Southern state schools (such as Alabama, Old Miss, University of Georgia, etc.), but we live in Chicago so I have some confusion. When it comes to financial aid, how do these out-of-state schools award money? Our family has high need and our EFC is only $15,000. But I've been told that state schools outside my state only have a small amount of money to give to out-of-state students and we would probably get more financial aid at a private college than at a big state school that isn't in Illinois. Can you tell me if this is accurate? And if so, can we still get federal financial aid even if the states don't give us any?


You've provided "The Dean" with some helpful details but not with the biggie: How strong a student is your son? The large universities that you've mentioned can be generous with "merit aid" but not always so much with "need-based" assistance, just as your grapevine has told you. (Merit aid is the funding that colleges use to lure their top prospects, usually without regard to family income and assets, while need-based aid is tied to the expected family contribution, or EFC.)

The University of Alabama, for instance, is atypically transparent when it comes to disclosing its merit awards, even before a student has filed an application. Your son can get a sense of what the Crimson Tide might give him right here. One young man in my orbit recently qualified for the "Presidential Scholarship" with a 34 ACT and a 3.9 GPA. So that meant he could automatically receive $26K per year from Bama. Currently, the tuition there is just over $30K for out-of-state students, and room & board is just over $10K. So, if that student were your son, he could attend the U. of Alabama for a cost that meshes well with your $15K obligation.

Unfortunately, however, your family is probably caught in the middle ... too "rich" (!!) to qualify for a Federal Pell grant, but perhaps too "poor" to pay for an out-of-state school like Alabama without landing good merit money or taking out loans. You will be eligible for federal loans to help with your son's college costs, but loans certainly aren't the same as grants (the good stuff that doesn't need to be repaid).

According to the College Board, the University of Alabama awards some financial aid to 95 percent of the freshmen who qualify (that's the good news) but the school only meets an average of 61 percent of their need (the bad news!). Old Miss, on the other hand, claims to do a bit better ... meeting 78 percent of need for 97 percent of the freshmen, and UGA's stats are similar.

In order to get a clearer idea of what, specifically, all this would mean for you, try playing around with the online "Net Price Calculator" for U. of Alabama and for your son's other target schools. Here's a link to Bama's to get you started.

As for doing better at a private college, this, too, may depend on your son's academic record. As you might be aware, nearly 100 colleges promise to "meet full need." Thus, for a family like yours with a low EFC, that can be a huge help. But ... some of these colleges meet this need with a mix of grant and loans, so that may not be such a super deal after all. And most of the colleges that offer the best need-based aid (high grants; few or no loans) are also extremely selective. If your son is strong enough to get into one or more of these, then indeed it may be much cheaper for him to attend a private college and not a public one. But if he's a more average student, then he probably won't be accepted at the places with the best aid.

When exploring private colleges, you should be aware that sometimes even big merit scholarships that sound enticing at first glance (I'm talking $20K per year or more) aren't really such hot bargains when you see the school's total Cost of Attendance. Even mediocre students are often offered merit money from colleges whose median freshman GPA and test scores are even lower than their own. While this can seem exciting and flattering, when you look closely you may find that the total Cost of Attendance is $50K+ per year. So even a $20K annual merit scholarship will still leave you owing $30K per year ... more than you'd pay for tuition and room & board at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ... which is probably a more selective school than any private one that doles out merit bucks to so-so students.

Bottom line: Play around with the Net Price Calculators (all colleges are required to post one) at the schools your son is currently considering along with those from one or two in-state institutions and at a couple private colleges where he should be admissible. While you can't take the NPC results as gospel truth (especially if your family's financial situation is unusual), they should provide a useful reality check as you and your son move forward with his college list and applications. And if you have only "some confusion" at this point, you're way ahead of most families!

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