7 Ways to Choose a College When Price Matters

diploma_money_cover.jpgThe college search process can be a daunting one. First comes all of the homework: college visits, campus fit, admissions deadlines, financial aid paperwork, and acceptance letters.

But, then, at some point you have to face the financial realities: How am I going to actually pay for this?

We’ve all heard the doom and gloom about the rising price of college. It’s not uncommon to find schools that have a published cost of $60,000 per year — or more!

Luckily, this is only part of the story. Many times, those expensive schools offer generous aid. Savvy families can find smart ways to save big on college if they know where to look.

After the “sticker shock” wears off, it’s time to get to work.

Here are some tips for how you can find the right college without paying through the you-know-what.

1. Include finances in your search

The number one mistake that families make when searching for colleges: not considering the cost while building a list of schools where their student will apply. Or, worse yet, they strike colleges off their list based on the published cost (see below).

Too many families apply to a college and then are left hoping for good financial aid, without any clue of what they’ll actually receive.

You can use a college’s net price calculator–every school is required to have one–to estimate what kind of aid package you’re likely to receive before you even apply. The net price is what you’ll actually end up paying, after subtracting any grants or scholarships your student qualifies to receive.

Make this a key factor when you compile your student’s college list.

This will not only save you from getting stuck with no financially viable options come May, but it will also help you identify schools that may seem expensive but might actually be affordable.

2. Ignore the “sticker” price

As I mentioned above, the net price is what a family actually pays for college. And it can be much lower than the published cost on a school’s website.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for colleges to award 99% or 100% of their incoming freshmen with some kind of aid. And many schools have average discounts of 50% or more.

So don’t let the sticker price knock a school off your list before investigating which options may actually be more affordable. You’ll likely be surprised to find that some of the most expensive schools end up costing the least.

3. Don’t count out private colleges

It’s commonly said that public colleges are the most affordable options for most students. But in many cases that’s simply not true.

This myth is perpetuated by the high published cost of many private universities. But it doesn’t factor in the financial aid that these institutions offer. While some publics also grant significant aid, private colleges tend to be more generous, especially for lower- and middle-income families.

Without delving into too much detail, the high published cost generally only applies to very wealthy families. And their price ends up subsidizing the cost for those who need financial assistance.

4. Check out a variety of options

Colleges all have their own financial aid awarding systems. This means that one school may offer your family $0 in aid, while a similar school may offer you $20,000 or more in grants.

The key here is to check out a variety of options and see which ones are likely to give you the best deal. Again, you’ll probably be surprised to learn how wildly the costs and aid can vary from school to school.

Our free College Raptor match tool will do much of the heavy lifting for you by showing an estimate of your actual cost and scholarship offer from any college in the country. So, you can quickly and easily shop around to see which schools might be most affordable.

5. Focus on institutional aid before “giveaway” scholarships

While scooping up as many $500 and $1,000 scholarships as possible can definitely add up, the biggest way to save on college is to focus on the institutional grants and scholarships that are awarded directly by the college where you’re applying.

These grants are generally awarded automatically (they don’t require a separate application or essay in most cases) and get handed out on a sliding scale. So, a student with a 3.5 GPA and a 25 ACT may automatically get a scholarship of $15,000 per year. If they bump that ACT score to a 27, it might qualify them for a $20,000 award.

6. Include some “reach” schools

Applying to selective colleges and universities isn’t just for an ego boost. It can help your bank account, too.

Many of the more-prestigious schools also have large endowment funds, which allows them to do more to subsidize costs for students who need financial assistance. In the case of the truly top-tier institutions like Stanford or Harvard, most middle-class families won’t have to pay a dime for tuition and may even qualify for a full-ride scholarship.

Other selective schools offer similar aid, and many are dedicated to meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need with loan-free aid packages.

These schools generally only award aid based on financial need, not academic merit.

7. Consider the ROI of academic prep

As I mentioned above, many schools that offer merit scholarships award them on a sliding scale based on the student’s GPA and test score.

In this case, investing in a test prep service or tutoring to help your student raise their score may end up paying off big time.

Depending on the criteria and how close your student is to the cut-off point, spending $1,000 on an ACT/SAT coach could end up earning your student an extra $5,000 per year, or $20,000 over their college career. That’s a pretty good return!

Once you have a list of college options, investigate merit scholarships listed on each college’s website to see if they show specific criteria. This will give you an idea of how valuable a boost in GPA or test scores may end up being.

Tyler Hakes is the director of marketing at College Raptor, a free college matching site that helps students and families discover colleges based on academic, cultural, and financial fit.