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College tuition has increased over 1,100 percent over the last 30 years, causing many families to conclude that a college degree is out of reach. While the sticker shock can be intimidating at first, there are many ways to approach the process strategically and intentionally so that the student ends up with options that are optimal and affordable.
Prevailing thought among most families is that state schools will be more affordable than private schools because the state schools claim lower tuition than private schools that may have a sticker price that is twice as high.
However, in many instances families will find that their out of pocket costs are far less at the private schools, once all merit and need-based aid is factored in. When consulting with a student and his/her parents, I advise that the student start by applying to one or two state schools, just to cover the bases in case no merit or need based funds are offered.
Overall, academic merit scholarships are typically offered to students who exceed the average freshman profile with respect to SAT/ACT scores and grade point averages for a given school.
Private colleges and universities typically have more generous programs for allocating academic merit scholarships than state schools. Unlike most state schools, private schools often conduct formal scholarship competitions on campus for students to vie for scholarships ranging from small merit awards up to full rides that cover tuition, room and board, books, fees, study abroad and even a laptop.
While state colleges and universities certainly have some merit scholarship funds available to offer, those funds are doled out at the discretion of the admissions staff or administration without an on-campus competition and interviews. Due to the overwhelming number of applicants, a comprehensive merit scholarship competition on campus would be impractical and a logistical nightmare for a large state school.
Need-based aid includes federal grants of free money, student loans from federal or private sources, on-campus employment and even grant money provided out of the school’s own private endowment. Need-based aid is less under the control of the student and has more to do with the family’s income and tax information. Families can maximize how much money they get by filing FAFSA promptly each year (as soon after Jan 1 as possible) at www.fafsa.ed.gov and by candidly sharing any extra financial concerns with the financial aid office of their college. Often, when colleges know more about extenuating family circumstances, they will do more to help.
Very competitive schools such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc. do not typically offer merit scholarships because they believe all of their students are so exceptional that all students would deserve merit scholarships. Those Ivy League schools do not need to use scholarship money to recruit the best and brightest students since they already get those applicants.
Instead, the top-ranked schools favor giving exceptionally generous financial aid based solely on financial need. Families who do not qualify for federal grants based on need may still find themselves recipients of generous need-based aid from the selective private schools.
For example, a family with an annual income of $60,000 per year may find that they do not qualify for any need-based grants from the government or state school. However, if that same student were admitted to Princeton, he/she would immediately qualify for a Princeton grant that covers full tuition and room and board. Even families with incomes of $120,000 automatically receive school grants to full tuition and 18 percent of room and board.
It is not just the Ivies that offer such generous need-based aid. Williams, Amherst, Vassar, Columbia, Vanderbilt, Duke and Davidson are just a few schools that also generously cover a family’s need.
Elizabeth Hartley owns Scholarship Gold Consulting in Lake Wylie. For more information or to get her monthly newsletter, visit ScholarshipGold.com.