Given that very few private colleges meet 100% of financial need, the cheapest option for most low-income students will be one of their state’s public universities. There will always be some low-income students that will have their full need met at private colleges, but they will be the exception. The majority will find themselves “gapped” and forced to consider private loans to make up the difference.
You might be thinking that public universities on average meet a lower percentage of student need than private schools and you would be right. But the fact remains that public schools are significantly cheaper. For example, if a public school only meets 50% of need, the student is likely to still have to pay around $10,000. Private schools would have to meet approximately 80% of need for the student to pay the same amount.
Meeting 100% of Need
And the whole concept of “meeting need” can muddy the waters. On the Common Data Set (CDS), colleges report the average percentage of need met and the percentage of the students who have 100% of their need fully met. The later number can be quite low.
Take a look at NYU. According the most recently available CDS data (which is from 2016-17), it met 67.4% of average need for freshman (59.8% for all undergraduates). However, only 8.9% of freshman had their need fully met. And don’t go assuming that the students in 8.9% were the neediest. If you think about it, it’s a lot easier to meet 100% of need for students who only need $5,000 instead of $20,000.
Instead of focusing on “percentage of need met,” low-income students are probably better off just looking at the average net price for the lowest income category. Schools can’t use subsidized loans to lower the average net price. However, they are allowed to include them when calculating percentage of need met for the CDS.
Why You Need to Pay Attention to Average Net Price by Income
The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) reports average net price for students with family incomes of $30,00 or less. You would think that the average net price would be fairly low for this category. Yet among 71 colleges that claim to meet 100% of need, the average net price for this category ranged from a low of 0 (for 12 students) to a high of $17,784. Forty percent of the schools had averages over $10,000. According to IPEDS, New York University freshman with family incomes of $30,000 or less paid an average net price of $22,731.
See what I mean? Go with the average net price.
The table below lists public 50-50 colleges with an average net price of $10,000 or less for those with family incomes of $30,000 or less. Out of 175 public 50-50 colleges, only 64 made the list.
Furthermore, they represent only 27 states. Of course, not all states have public 50-50 colleges. The list includes the public 50-50 college with the lowest average net price for the lowest income category even if it was over $10,000.
In some states, such as New York and Washington, the lowest wasn’t significantly different from the other public 50-50 colleges in the state. Other states had more dramatic differences. In Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State both had averages over $20,000 for the lowest income category.
The following table lists the lowest cost 50-50 public institutions for 44 states. As usual, the 5-year graduation rate is used public schools. Red text indicates schools where the average net price for the lowest income category was over $10,000. (Download all 50-50 schools here.)
Lowest Cost 50-50 Public Colleges by State for Students with Family Income of $30,000 or Less