(You can and should apply to those expensive private colleges!)
Are you ready? Here it is, the massive, and huge, and important secret to financial aid:
Yes, it’s true. It’s possible to get your higher education degree at a premier university for less money than at a public school. How? Keep reading to find out.
Basics on Financial Aid
When you’re applying to colleges, one of the most important things you do is fill out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It’s a big tax form with lots of numbers that eventually pops out a number called an Expected Family Contribution (EFC). This is the amount of money the federal government deems your family can afford to spend on your college education. There is a more detailed guide and chart to help you predict your EFC here, but the main point is that colleges see the FAFSA and consider your financial need (which is the cost of their university minus your EFC) when you apply.
The fact that they can use this number sounds like a bad thing, which is why some colleges are need-blind—meaning they accept students without looking at their EFC until after they are accepted. But need-blind schools run into trouble when they don’t have the financial resources to meet the need of all their accepted students. This leads us to full-need schools, which are the exact opposite in that they consider your financial need in your application, but if you are accepted they guarantee to meet 100% of your need.
How the Magic Happens
The interesting thing about private colleges is that because of their alumni donations, high tuition costs for students who can afford to go there, and small class enrollment, they can afford to spend more per student. Many private colleges, like my own Barnard College, can even boast that they meet 100% of financial need of all undergraduates. This contrasts the 81% of financial need of undergraduates (according to CollegeInSight) at the University of California Berkeley (which is still a high amount compared to other schools).
Be careful when you’re evaluating your financial packages, however, because it can be tricky to interpret how much a college is actually giving you. College Board has a really great guide here; but in general grants and scholarships are gifts you don’t have to pay back, and work-study and loans are amounts you will have to earn and pay back. In addition some schools (*cough cough NYU and BU cough*) are notorious for accepting students and giving them too little grants and too many loans for them to realistically attend the university, leading some students into crippling debt.
In your college research, prioritize finding schools that are right for you before you consider financial aid, and dare to apply to the expensive private schools that seem so out of reach. Additionally, find a college research engine that has a financial aid calculator, and pay attention to the % of financial need met statistic. If you’re worried about the cost of applying to so many colleges, remember a $100 is a drop in the bucket in the larger scheme of paying for thousands of dollars a year universities, and you can apply for application fee waivers. Because, ultimately, if you are accepted into a private university, you may very well wind up getting a stellar financial aid package. And that’s something to celebrate.
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