(Updated for 2020) I’ve reviewed multiple college search websites and searching by size is always an option. Size is probably one of the first limitations students use when searching for colleges, often based on little to no real experience or evidence. And if you’re interested in getting the best college financial aid possible, this is a big mistake.
Too many people think that your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is something that you worry about when you apply for financial aid–if they have heard the term at all. And if you’re a family with high school students thinking about college, it’s definitely a term you should become familiar with immediately. Why? Because what you don’t know about your EFC can hurt you long before you even start to fill-out college application forms.
There are over 1,600 four-year public and private colleges in the United States. And guess what, they don’t all cost an arm and a leg to attend. With this many colleges, there have to be quality, affordable options available for families who look for them. And there are students attending college without facing the prospect of years of debilitating debt. Yet, attending affordable colleges comes with some trade-offs that not all families are willing to make.
If you want to pay less for college, you need to pay more attention to college statistics. I’m sure many parents and students hip deep in the college admissions process think that they are drowning in college statistics but are still facing the prospect of impossible tuition bills. The problem is that they aren’t paying attention to the right statistics, or at the very least, not considering them in terms of how they affect the cost of going to college.
Everyone wants to know if colleges are going to open next fall. Or rather if they are going to open for in-person classes since by now the colleges have demonstrated their ability to conduct virtual classes. Of course, if they are mandated to remain shut-down, it’s not a question they have to answer. But otherwise, there are a lot of reasons why colleges will be welcoming students on campus for classes coming this fall and they pretty much all come down to money.
The excitement generated by acceptance letters so many high school seniors received before April 1 has morphed into anxiety if not outright panic as families’ finances have been turned upside down. What was an affordable college before COVID-19 may not be any more. Spring sport athletes face uncertainty about scholarship availability. And there are students who would just rather stay a little closer to home than when they first created their college list.
So now what?
This is a list of over 200 colleges most likely to provide need-based aid (not based on academic merit) to students. I include schools on the list if they meet one of the following requirements:
- Meet 95% or more of freshman financial need according to the Common Data Set (CDS)
- The Average Net Price for freshman with family incomes of $30,000 or less was $8,000 or less.
When students start creating their final college list, smart families make sure they use the Net Price Calculator on all possibilities before adding them to the final list. Net Price Calculators (NPC) provide families with the estimated price they will pay after deducting for gift aid. This is called the average net price. Essentially, NPCs provide the average paid by students with similar financial backgrounds excluding loans and work-study. They have only been around since 2011 and can be a valuable tool for families targeting colleges generous with financial aid. However, they aren’t perfect and anyone who uses NPCs need to keep the following in mind:
(For those looking for affordable colleges, I’m updating this post. Because I’ve updated the spreadsheet several times since I wrote this post, some of the numbers in the text won’t match the results in the graphics. You can see a video demonstration at the end of the post.) In this post, I’m going to show you how to use the DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet to find private colleges most likely to provide generous merit aid in just four easy steps. These are schools that students with high Expected Family Contributions (EFC) should target for non-need based aid. This is in no way a guarantee. Rather, consider this a way to improve your chances for merit scholarships given the available information. The idea is to use this list as a basis to create the final list of colleges to apply to.