(Updated for 2023) Probably the biggest shock families experience as they consider their college options is finding out how much they’re expected to pay for college. But I think a close second would be how few colleges are actually able to meet the family’s admittedly flawed calculated need. According to the Common Data Set and college websites only 75 colleges and universities claim to meet 100% of a student’s financial need.
If a family is able to show financial need, good luck in finding a school that will actually cover it.
Download the Complete List of Best Bet Colleges for EFC=0
Let’s start with how do you find colleges that meet 100% of need. The Common Data Set asks colleges “On average, the percentage of need that was met of students who were awarded any need-based aid.” Unfortunately, most college search websites don’t allow users to search on this information.
I created my list based on the Common Data Set information colleges post on their websites. I included all schools that claimed to have met 99% or more of need among freshman. This netted me 67 colleges. Then I used the IPEDS data on institutional aid to identify other colleges likely to be meeting 100% of need but didn’t post their Common Data Set information. After checking their websites, I added eight more schools to the list.
This included Wake Forest which states on its website that “we meet 100% of the demonstrated financial need of eligible admitted undergraduate students, with grants, scholarships, work-study, and subsidized loans.” Yet, it reported meeting only 96.9% of freshman need on its posted common data set.
And ultimately, they aren’t very likely to get into one of these select few because, well, most of them are one of the select few. Almost two-thirds of the colleges have acceptance rates of 20% or less. Only one is over 50%. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of the schools were ranked in the top 50 for US News Best College Rankings for National Universities or Liberal Arts Colleges.
You just can’t help but think, “wow, prestigious and generous too, no wonder they’re such great schools!”
Actually, I have to admit, I can help myself.
What meeting 100% of need looks like
Why? Because of the 75 schools with 500 or more full-time undergraduates, 38 had an average net price after gift aid of over $8,000 for families with incomes of $30,000 or less. Two schools, Lafayette and Harvey Mudd, had averages of over $20,000. A total of 27 had an average of less than $5,000 for this category.
I use $8,000 since virtually all students will qualify for the $5,500 Direct Federal Student loan. When you add in the mandatory student contribution many of the schools require, I can see where an $8,000 average net price is reasonable. However, we are talking about the lowest income category. I’m sure these kids have plenty of expenses that won’t fall under the Total Cost of Attendance which is why I mentioned the number under $5,000 as well.
There are 152 other colleges and universities that have an average net price of $8,000 or less for the lowest income category but only 38 among the 75 schools claiming to meet 100% of need. Does that sound like meeting full need to you?
Colleges get to define demonstrated need
Chances are that most of the schools claiming to meet 100% of need are using their own special definition of demonstrated need since 72 require students to submit the PROFILE as part of their financial aid application. That’s the financial aid application that wants to know your home equity which the FAFSA doesn’t and maybe the year and make of the car you’re driving. Of those using the PROFILE, 68 also require the Non-custodial supplement.
Boston College explicitly states that “Boston College does not meet the expected family contribution determined by the FAFSA. We meet 100% of the need that is based on our determination of your institutional expected family contribution.” It’s their money, they get to decide how to distribute it.
Furthermore, the PROFILE is the form that low-income students don’t find out if they qualify for the fee waiver until sometime while completing their application. Maybe that’s why there are so few freshman receiving Pell Grants at these schools. In fact, over 40% of the schools wouldn’t meet the Education Trust’s proposed bottom-line standards for the minimum percentage of freshman with Pell Grants.
It’s really about priorities
Now I know that some would argue that colleges simply can’t admit more poor students if they’re going to meet 100% of financial need, no matter how they may decide to define it. Well then, how about we just compare these elite schools among themselves? And let’s avoid the entire income category issues. Let’s take a look at the percentage of freshman receiving Pell Grants compared to the average endowment per student (see the list below.)
Among the 75 schools, the percentage of freshman receiving Pell Grants range from a high of 29% to just 8%. If you graph the two numbers, there really doesn’t seem to be any relationship between the two. In other words, the percentage of freshman with Pell Grants doesn’t increase as the Average Endowment per Student increases.
Consider just the seven colleges where 21% of freshman are receiving Pell Grants. Two of schools have average endowments of less than $200,000 per student while a third is under $400,000. The remaining four schools have endowments of over $1,000,000 per student. Maybe they should visit the other schools and learn something about doing more with less.
|Name||% Freshman Receiving Pell Grants (20-21)||Endowment per Student|
|University of Southern California||21||$135,972|
|University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill||21||$121,337|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology||21||$1,610,154|
They aren’t meeting need if you have to pay it back
One last thing to know about colleges claiming to meet 100% need. They aren’t reporting this to the federal government. It’s information that is collected as part of the Common Data Set (CDS). Publishers like US News use the CDS information to create their rankings and college search websites.
The reason I’m telling you this is because the CDS does not use the same definitions as required by the federal government. The government defines average net price as the amount families pay after gift aid. It doesn’t include any loans or work study funds.
However, the CDS definition allows colleges to count subsidized loans as meeting need. Even though it’s only the interest that the government is subsidizing, the schools get to claim the entire amount in their calculations. So you really need to check with the individual schools to find out if it’s using loans as part of the financial aid award to meet 100% of need.
Now you know why this is a list of colleges of those that “claim” to meet 100% of need and why I’m not necessarily impressed with their generosity. You can find information on all of these colleges and more in the DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet.
Colleges that Meet 100% of Financial Need
|Name||Type||ST||Full-time Under-graduate||% Admitted||% Freshman Receiving Pell Grants (20-21)||Avg Net Price by Income $0-$30,000 2020-21|
|Bryn Mawr College||Pri||PA||1,332||39||17||$14,782|
|California Institute of Technology||Pri||CA||973||4||10||$10,755|
|Carnegie Mellon University||Pri||PA||6,441||14||14||$14,879|
|Case Western Reserve University||Pri||OH||5,355||30||17||$18,240|
|Claremont McKenna College||Pri||CA||1,305||11||23||$249|
|College of the Holy Cross||Pri||MA||3,047||43||13||$9,920|
|Franklin and Marshall College||Pri||PA||2,349||38||25||$14,608|
|Harvey Mudd College||Pri||CA||827||10||13||$21,439|
|Johns Hopkins University||Pri||MD||5,894||8||20||-$2,634|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology||Pri||MA||4,326||4||21||-$6,711|
|Mount Holyoke College||Pri||MA||2,082||52||29||$7,687|
|St Olaf College||Pri||MN||2,982||47||22||$9,478|
|University of Chicago||Pri||IL||7,351||6||14||$2,993|
|University of Florida||Pub||FL||33,060||30||22||-$208|
|University of Miami||Pri||FL||11,307||28||14||$19,275|
|University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill||Pub||NC||18,756||20||21||$4,908|
|University of Notre Dame||Pri||IN||8,949||15||12||$10,918|
|University of Pennsylvania||Pri||PA||10,213||6||19||-$6,500|
|University of Richmond||Pri||VA||3,172||29||17||$13,287|
|University of Southern California||Pri||CA||19,533||13||21||$12,404|
|University of Virginia-Main Campus||Pub||VA||17,173||21||13||$8,987|
|Wake Forest University||Pri||NC||5,417||25||10||$7,527|
|Washington and Lee University||Pri||VA||1,831||19||10||$769|
|Washington University in St Louis||Pri||MO||7,187||13||16||$3,263|