How to Create a College List That Will Save Your Family Money

Summer’s here and it’s time for rising seniors to begin application essays, plan campus visits and refine their college list. Schools that will make the cut will have the right academic fit, location, reputation and campus culture. Unfortunately, many students – and their parents – wait until it is too late to consider one of the most important variables, “financial fit.”

Creating a college list with financial aid in mind
Think about financial fit when you look at schools.

Families sometimes make the big mistake of talking about finances at the end of the process in the Spring when the financial aid award letters arrive. Or, parents may insist on one reasonably priced state college, while hoping for financial aid to be awarded from the expensive colleges on the list.

Yet it is crucial to have financial fit in mind from the very beginning of the process as students work on a college list of schools to which they will ultimately apply.

4 Steps to Creating a College List with Financial Fit in Mind

1. Research In State Colleges

It goes without saying that good students should apply to the flagship university in their state. Whether it is University of Florida, UCONN, or University of Kansas, you will get a quality education with reasonable in-state fees. But also consider additional universities in your home state that have good programs and may offer you lower tuition or increased chances of merit aid. For example, in these three states, take a look at the tuition and merit aid offered at these other schools:  Eastern Connecticut State, University of South Florida, and Kansas State University.

Families looking for the ultimate in cost savings can consider community colleges, which offer very low tuition with the opportunity to transfer to a four-year college. Low income students who qualify for a Pell Grant will find that their costs at community college are covered in full.

[More on what to know about college visits here.]

2. Research Out of State Colleges

There are tuition bargains to be had at state universities throughout the US. Many offer tuition breaks to students from neighboring states. If you live in New England, you’ll pay only $27, 586 for tuition, room and board at the University of Maine, a fee only slightly higher than what Maine residents pay. Residents of the Dakotas and Wisconsin benefit from “reciprocity” tuition rates at University of Minnesota, and groups such as the Western Student Exchange and the Academic Common Market offer tuition reductions for out-of-state students, although they are sometimes limited by the major a student choses.

In addition to these regional deals, there are popular state universities with reasonable fees for out-of-state students. You can get tuition, room and board for about $40,000 at University of Alabama, $37,000 at Virginia Tech or University of Arkansas, and $35,000 at the University of Minnesota. The cherry on top of these low tuition rates is that they offer generous merit scholarships to out-of-state students to sweeten the deal.

3. Look at Lower Cost Private Colleges

Many private colleges have topped $65,000 a year in tuition, room and board. To be fair, they do offer extensive need-based financial aid. But many families are disappointed with their financial aid award, or may not qualify for aid at all, but still find the tuition and fees to be overwhelming. Families who included lower cost private colleges on their list were happy to have these options in April. Examples (tuition, room and board) include Lake Forest College at $53,000, Lynchburg College at $46,000, and the striking bargain of Flagler College in St Augustine, Florida which is $27,620, all in.

4.  Look for Schools With Merit Scholarships

You have probably heard of students who received large merit scholarship awards, in amounts as high as $20,000 annually, and wondered how they got it. Maybe she wasn’t at the top of her class, yet still she got this big scholarship. How?

The answer is that she applied to a colleges where she was a good candidate for a merit scholarship. She was sure that her college list included schools where she was in the top 20% of the applicant pool, or that she met the college’s stated SAT and GPA scholarship requirement.

Many colleges are transparent about their threshold for merit awards, publishing award amounts on their websites or in their promotional materials. But other colleges don’t have firm cut offs and make merit scholarship offers based on factors beyond the grades and testing, and consider the quality of the applicant pool, picking the students they especially want to enroll.

Creating a college list that includes good fits that are also financial bargains or have merit award possibilities is more art than science. I can’t tell you a specific place to look, or a database with unique information on merit scholarships.

Educational consultants and high school guidance counselors often have insight and experience working with students seeking merit awards and can make recommendations that are good fits for you.

I worked with a student who was accepted to Boston College and Villanova with no merit money, but received a $22,000 annual award to Loyola University in Baltimore. I recommended Loyola to him since it offered a lot of what he liked about Boston College and I knew he would qualify for a large award.

If he had not included Loyola on his college list in the beginning, he never would have had this option. I encourage all my students to add merit scholarship possibilities to their college lists. Sometimes it’s a hard sell, since they are excited about the reach schools, but don’t like to spend too much time on this other group of colleges.

It can also be hard to convince students that they will qualify for merit scholarships. You don’t have to be a top student to win a merit award. I have worked with “B” students who received merit awards from Marquette, University of Tampa, Roanoke College, and many other great colleges. Even students whose GPA’s are below 3.0 can qualify for merit aid at some colleges.

Spend the time now developing a well-thought out and researched college list, and you may see it pay off in spades next spring!

More to Read:

Last Call List for Senior Year

Saying Goodbye to the Sideline

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.