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Why Your Best College Financial Aid Will Probably Come From a School No One Has Ever Heard Of

Boy scratching head because best financial aid came for a school he never heard ofYour best college financial aid will likely come from the college you attend. This means students need to rethink their college search based on size. 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.

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The Majority of Colleges are Small

Actually, it’s really just a mistake if you’re looking only at schools with more than 5,000 students. Why? Because you’ve just eliminated approximately 3/4 of all colleges from consideration. Of the 1,588 public and private (non-profit) colleges with 500 or more full-time undergraduates, 75% have 5,000 or fewer undergraduates.

It’s basically a numbers game. If the majority of colleges have fewer than 5,000 students, that means the majority of colleges that offer financial aid are going to be small as well. Furthermore, if you consider that students are more likely to get merit aid from private schools, the chances are even greater it will be from a smaller school. There are only 81 private colleges with more than 5,000 full-time undergraduates compared to 323 public institutions.

And since the colleges are small, they are going to have fewer alumni interacting with the rest of the world, so fewer people will have ever heard of the college.

Therefore: The Majority of Colleges with the Best College Financial Aid are Small

This isn’t meant to pass judgement on which is better, large or small schools. The four-year graduation rate for private colleges with 5,000 or fewer students ranges from as little as 1% to 92%. Private colleges with more than 5,000 full-time undergraduates have graduation rates from 9% to 93%.

This is about finding the best college financial aid possible, especially merit money. Of the 81 private colleges with more than 5,000 students, only 27 have a graduation rate of 50% or better with an average net price of less than $33,000. Among the 805 smaller private schools, 309 have a 50% or better graduation rate with an average net price of less than $33,000.

The small colleges in Ohio outnumber the larger ones by 65 to 14. In New York, there are 63 smaller colleges compared to 35 larger ones while Massachusetts has 51 smaller schools compared to 10 larger institutions. Only in Utah, Arizona, and Idaho do the larger colleges outnumber the smaller ones.

Smaller Colleges aren’t Just About Opportunities for the Best Financial Aid

If you think about it, smaller colleges are likely to be the answer to most questions about what type of college has more x.

Athletes are more likely to play at a smaller school because there are more smaller colleges than larger ones.

Students are more likely to be student body presidents at smaller schools simply because there are more schools available and fewer students to compete with for the position.

More homecoming queens come from smaller schools than larger schools.

I’m sure you get the point by now. Larger schools will certainly have more students than five or ten times any number of smaller schools. But they will still have the same number of X.

Even in the cases where there isn’t the same number of X, smaller schools may provide overlooked opportunities. One overlooked area is more opportunities for research and teaching assistantships. Smaller schools often have few, if any, graduate students which means undergraduates don’t have to compete with them for opportunities.

Don’t Forget About Supply and Demand

Then there’s the fact that since students seem to have a preference for larger colleges, larger colleges often provide less financial aid opportunities. Students are willing to attend even if it costs more to attend than smaller colleges.

Furthermore, larger schools tend to be public institutions which already have lower tuition for their own residents. Again, this would limit the need for financial aid.

Yet, because these schools are so large, they have a larger media presence as well as alumni base. Students and parents are much more likely to hear about them and someone’s wonderful experience at them.

Smaller schools aren’t going to benefit from such free “advertising” and have to work harder to attract students to their campuses. Hence, they are more likely to offer the best financial aid awards for students.

Ultimately, if families are really serious about finding the best financial aid deal, they can’t afford to rule out small colleges. The following table shows the number of colleges by size for each state.

Colleges by Size and State

(with 500 or More Full-Time Undergraduates) 

State Less Than 2,500 2,500-4,999 5,000-9,999 10,000 plus Grand Total
Alabama 13 5 4 3 25
Alaska 2 1 3
Arizona 3 1 4 8
Arkansas 12 4 3 1 20
California 40 17 17 26 100
Colorado 11 6 5 3 25
Connecticut 11 7 4 1 23
Delaware 2 3 1 6
District of Columbia 3 1 3 1 8
Florida 27 15 13 13 68
Georgia 28 10 6 6 50
Hawaii 5 1 1 7
Idaho 4 2 2 8
Illinois 29 12 5 6 52
Indiana 26 6 7 4 43
Iowa 23 1 1 2 27
Kansas 14 3 2 2 21
Kentucky 19 1 4 3 27
Louisiana 9 5 6 2 22
Maine 13 1 1 15
Maryland 13 5 4 3 25
Massachusetts 34 17 5 5 61
Michigan 27 4 6 7 44
Minnesota 24 4 4 2 34
Mississippi 10 1 1 2 14
Missouri 23 9 6 2 40
Montana 8 1 1 10
Nebraska 10 3 1 2 16
Nevada 4 1 1 2 8
New Hampshire 7 3 2 12
New Jersey 9 9 7 3 28
New Mexico 6 1 1 8
New York 53 33 21 14 121
North Carolina 29 8 5 7 49
North Dakota 7 2 9
Ohio 57 8 6 8 79
Oklahoma 17 4 1 2 24
Oregon 10 3 3 16
Pennsylvania 66 15 10 5 96
Rhode Island 3 5 1 1 10
South Carolina 20 8 2 2 32
South Dakota 9 1 1 11
Tennessee 23 4 6 3 36
Texas 43 13 16 16 88
Utah 1 1 2 7 11
Vermont 6 2 1 9
Virginia 21 7 2 7 37
Washington 24 16 4 3 47
West Virginia 14 1 1 1 17
Wisconsin 19 6 8 2 35
Wyoming 2 1 3
Grand Total 893 291 209 195 1588

*Pennsylvania is restructuring its state university system and no enrollment data is currently available for the Penn State system except the main campus.

Why Your Best College Financial Aid Will Probably Come From a School No One Has Ever Heard Of