Seven Steps to an Affordable College Experience

Find the school that’s truly a “best fit” for you, and the school will find more ways to make it affordable. Most students, however, go about the process backwards. With all the focus on getting in, few focus on getting out without significant debt. First, they find the school they want to attend, and then their parents scramble to find a way to pay once they’re admitted and offered limited financial help.

The good news for affluent and middle-class families, especially those that have not set aside enough money for college, is that those who receive the most financial aid are not always the ones that need it. Even if you have a large income, or have significant assets, there are many ways to cut college costs if you know the steps to take.

Qualify for Quality Aid
There are two types of financial aid: need-based and non-need-based. Even if you do not qualify for need-based aid at a less expensive school, you may qualify for it at a more expensive school. For example, if you’re expected to pay $20,000, and a state school costs $15,000, you might be expected to foot the entire bill. However, at a private school costing $45,000, you might qualify for $25,000 in need-based aid.

Furthermore, even if you don’t qualify for any need-based aid, many schools offer great non-need-based aid including grants, scholarships, tuition discounts, and merit money. To keep things simple, we’ll call all of these forms of free money “grants.” However, regardless of your financial situation, every student needs to complete a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to be considered for both need- and non-need-based aid.

Step 1: Go to and click on “Begin Now” in the “Use the FAFSA4caster B” box to estimate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

Begin with the End in Mind
A successful approach is to target schools where you will be a best-fit student. To be a best-fit student, you should be in the top one-third of their freshman class, possess the characteristics and qualifications that make you the type of student they are looking for, and exemplify the school’s mission. A little known bonanza of detailed information known as the Common Data Set is a goldmine of admission and financial aid information.

Step 2: Using Google, type in the college name and “common data set” and find Part C to analyze the school’s stated admission criteria, including GPA and SAT statistics. Also, view Part F2 to locate programs and activities in which you participate. Finally, review the school’s mission statement. Does it resonate with you? Focus on those schools that are a best fit for you.

Four on the Floor
One of the biggest ways to cut the total cost of a college education is to graduate in 4 years. You’d be surprised at how difficult that can be at many schools. Few schools advertise their 4-year graduation rates, and many schools’ published rates are actually 6-year numbers. The average 4-year graduation rate for all colleges and universities is only 40%, versus 60% in 6 years. Private universities’ average 4-year graduation rates are 70%, versus 30% for public universities.

Step 3: Go to and select the school, then click on the “vital statistics” link to see 4 to 6 year graduation rates for your best-fit schools.

Get the Grant
For most students, admission to a respectable college where they will thrive both academically and personally is not the real problem, it’s affordability. Many schools tout that they meet 75-100% of students’ financial need, but when you dig deeper you’ll often find that the need is met with loans. This could leave a graduating student saddled with significant debt. Therefore, your search should focus on schools that provide the largest portion of their financial aid in grants, not loans. You also want to verify that the school does a good job in continuing to provide grants during years 2-4.

Step 4: Use the Common Data Set, Part H, for each of your best-fit schools to analyze its total financial aid package. To find the average grant dollars go to Part H2 line (k) for need-based or line (o) for non-need-based students. Further, line (e) and line (n) tell how many need- or non-need-based students received grants, respectively. With a little basic math, you can glean valuable insight into how each school awards financial aid. Then, further focus on those best-fit schools that offer the amount and type of aid you’ll need.

Dollars for Diversity
Admissions officers are all striving for diversity. The term means something slightly different to each college, but regardless, it can be used to your advantage. For example, most engineering and technical colleges are male dominated, so they are looking for more female students; and most schools are filled with in-state students, so they are looking for students from far-away states. Find the schools that want, but lack students like you, and they’ll find you more grant money.

Step 5: Use the application, admission, and enrollment numbers found in the Common Data Set, Part B2, C1, C7, and F2 to your favor by applying to schools that are looking for students like you. Further, apply to distant schools (Common Data Set, Part F1) who will be excited to receive an application from outside their region.

Application Angles
Aside from the proper completion of the application, it is helpful to apply early, visit the schools if possible, and stay politely in contact with them so they know you’re interested. In addition, there are a few more subtle steps that can increase your financial aid. If you are truly a best-fit for the school, they will not want to lose you to a competitor, especially one in their region. Therefore, consider applying to a known rival school where you’d also be a best fit, and to a reputable, in-state public school where they know you could attend for less. How will they know where else you applied? You filled out the FAFSA in Step 1 and listed the schools you wanted it sent to!

Step 6: Go to, select your best-fit schools and use the “Find Similar” tab to locate at least one nearby rival school for each of your best-fit schools and apply to them as well. Respectfully mention the competing schools when discussing your financial aid package with your preferred schools.

Funding Fears
Most parents overestimate how savings, retirement, and 529 accounts will cost them financial aid. FAFSA doesn’t even ask about home equity, retirement accounts, or a non-custodial parent’s assets to determine need-based aid. Parental assets, including 529 accounts, only reduce need-based aid by 6% of their value. Parents also underestimate how much flexibility many schools have in awarding grants to their best-fit students, especially if the family’s financial situation has changed. Admissions officers can be very accommodating when they feel they are dealing with reasonable people.

Step 7: Use 529 plans to save for college and convert traditional custodial accounts (UGMA & UTMA) to 529s. Calmly appeal the financial aid package you’ve been awarded. Don’t treat the discussion as a heated negotiation and don’t oversell the student – admissions officers have seen and heard it all before. Be specific as to the number you’d need to make it work, mention any situation they could empathize with, and offer documentation to support your case.

Competition among students and schools has created a focus on admission to schools with big brand names and impressive rankings. However, if you’re not a best fit for one of these schools, your financial aid package will likely be miserly. Instead, increase your odds of receiving the financial aid you need by following these seven steps to an affordable college experience.

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