How to Pick an Affordable College

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You probably didn’t think an article about how to how to choose an affordable college would start with good news, but according to U.S News and Reports, after years of trending upwards, college tuition and fees went down in 2020 for the schools they rank. In-state public schools dropped by 4%, private schools by 5%, and out-of-state public schools by 6%.

However, there’s a lot more to college affordability than tuition trends.

Comparing the cost of two or more colleges includes considering the cost of attendance, but it also means weighing financial aid opportunities, graduation and job placement rates, student loans, and more. As anyone who has tried to add all this up to get a real number understands, there’s no simple way to get an answer.

Choosing a college is as much an economic decision as it is an academic one. So, even though it can feel overwhelming to determine affordability or to measure the true value of the campus of your dreams, understanding how to compare colleges and measure affordability is a must.

To help, we’ve compiled a list of the biggest factors to consider when trying to pick an affordable college.

5 Ways to Pick an Affordable College

1. Compare Schools’ Net Price, not Sticker Price

The sticker price is the big, scary, advertised cost and is number people most frequently talk about.

The net price, on the other hand, is what students actually pay once financial aid is factored in. And, good news: A majority of students are awarded some kind of financial aid. According to College Board, in 2020, financial aid packages averaged about $14,940 for undergrads and $27,310 for graduates.

Averages aside, some schools are known to give out more aid than others. So, colleges that may look more expensive on paper could actually be more cost effective once the financial aid award letter is in your hand.

Take Dartmouth and Cornell, for example. Dartmouth’s advertised cost of attendance is $79,283 per year, about $5,000 more than Cornell, which is listed as $73,393. However, based on the average net price, it turns out that students tend to pay about $2,500 less to attend Dartmouth, which offers larger financial aid awards than Cornell.

Using a school’s net price calculator shows your out of pocket costs considering financial aid you are likely to be awarded at that institution and helps you compare the true cost of different schools.

Net calculators can be found on every school’s financial aid page. Unfortunately, they are not all standardized and results are only an estimate. It will define factors like your tax and bank records but it can be hard for it to accurately consider things like merit and talent aid that are not guaranteed.

2. Apply to Schools with Plenty of Merit Scholarships

Many schools offer their own merit-based scholarships for students who meet certain grade point averages, SAT scores, or other academic qualifications. However, some schools are more generous with merit aid than others.

For example, a staggering 95% of students at Vanguard University of Southern California use institutional, non-need based scholarships and 31% of students at Drexel University in Philadelphia get merit aid from the school.

Ask the school’s financial aid office about all of the school’s merit-based aid and make sure you understand application processes, qualifications, and deadlines. The FAFSA, CSS Profile, and other additional forms will likely need to be filled out, plus there could be a personal essay.

U.S News and Report keeps a list of schools that give out the most merit aid.

3. Location Matters to College Affordability

Location is one of the most impactful ways to make college more affordable.

State schools on average tend to have lower net prices than private schools. In state school tuition is likely to be cheaper than out of state school tuition. Choosing to attend a school within your state of residence can also mean lower tuition prices.

Many states have grant and other aid programs only available to students that stay in state. Like, Ohio which has a grant for nursing students who stay in state, and North Carolina where there’s a scholarship for students studying at criminal justice in the state school system. And staying in state can also cut other expenses like long distance travel and room and board, especially if you live at home.

But if you do live on campus, keep in mind that schools in cities tend to have higher cost of living than small town or rural settings.

4. Be Real About Prestige

It’s hard not to fall in love with some of the big-name colleges. But are they the right fit for you in other ways? Consider the feel of the campus, average class size, sports and clubs, proximity to your family, and resources they offer to help your future career. The college name can be important, but it’s still just as important for it to be affordable for your family.

“Prestige doesn’t equal valuable life experiences,” says New York Times Best Selling Author, Harlan Cohen. “Look at the grads from [public] schools. Talk to students attending these schools. You will soon realize that you can be exceptional, get an exceptional education, and have exceptional opportunities at lots of schools.”

There’s research reported on by Psychology Today that also suggests prestige isn’t as important as one might think. They cite studies showing that future success and happiness are more connected to a person’s experience with a professor or their ability to find a good internship than whether they went to a public or private college.

Ultimately, it’s about finding a respected institution, a program that will allow you to grow and make professional connections, and a pricing structure you can realistically afford.

5. Compare Other College Costs

Weighing school costs involves more than tuition, fees, room, board, and supplies; the true cost of life at each college should also be compared.

“It’s helpful to talk to a student from the school you’re considering and asking about other hidden costs. Find someone who is in your area of interest. There could be lab fees, off-campus housing, membership dues, uniforms or other expenses you weren’t expecting,” says Cohen.

For example, students interested in joining academic, political, athletic or other extracurricular activities will probably encounter fees, which are different at every college. The same goes with Greek life, which can range anywhere from a few hundred to a several thousand dollars every year depending on the school.

Cover every base. If you plan to keep a car on campus, there will be parking fees, gas and insurance (and the potential of tickets) and things like coffee, Uber, and going out with friends adds up. Don’t forget to budget for any trips home throughout the year.

Do some groundwork. Visit each campus when possible and ask a lot of questions. Make sure keep the full picture in mind when itemizing all the costs involved on your school list.

Additional Tips

Discuss School Affordability Early

As you prepare to choose a college, have a clear understanding of who is contributing and to what extent. Have a list of colleges across the price spectrum, but be realistic about what you can afford will help narrow it down when it comes time to choose.

Consider the price and your ability to repay student loans if needed, just as much as the academic program. Keep a spreadsheet that tallies all college expenses and include your net price, financial aid, and expenses along with the things you like about that college.

Here are a few more ways to evaluate college affordability:

  1. Job placement rates
  2. Four and six year graduation rates
  3. Student loan debt averages
  4. Average financial aid package awarded each academic year

Find the Right Loans

Student loans can help cover any remaining costs not covered by other financial aid like scholarships and grants.

In a survey College Ave conducted by Barnes and Noble College Insights™, it was found that 43% of students used federal loans and 12% got financing from private lenders.

If student loans are needed, start with federal loans which have lower interest rates and more repayment options than loans from private lenders.

If more funding is needed, apply for a private student loan. Look for lenders with low interest rates and a variety of repayment options.

Learn more about borrowing to pay for school.

Estimate Your Student Loan

Comparing College Is Worth It

A higher education is the most complicated purchase almost anyone can make. Not taking cost into consideration can leave you with few affordable options and result in higher bills than you are prepared to pay. However, with the right approach it can be a lot easier to make a decision that won’t break the bank and will set you up for a bright future.


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