Not all students have the luxury of attending whatever college they want regardless of its cost. In fact, for many students, cost of attendance is a deciding factor not just in where they attend college, but also in where they apply to college. If you’re budget-conscious, this cost-based approach to the college search makes the most sense. Get together with your family to determine how much money you can afford to apply toward your education and estimate your out-of-pocket costs for each school on your list. Once you have compiled a list of schools that you can afford, narrow down your options by considering how each school would meet your academic, professional, and personal needs. Apply to the schools that make the cut.


Get a good idea of your budget.

Talking to your parents or guardians about money can be unpleasant, but it’s a task that you have to tackle if you want to build a list of realistic college options. Over the course of the conversation, you may learn that you will be expected to contribute your own savings toward the cost of your education, that there’s a particular savings account that will be used to fund your education, or that your family cannot help you pay for college at all. Starting the conversation early will ensure that you have the longest amount of time to prepare your finances. Ask the right questions when you talk to your parents about their financial situation:

  • Do they have money saved to help you pay or will you need to take on the full tuition load by yourself?
  • How much money do they have set aside for your educational costs?
  • Even if they do have money set aside, do they expect you to contribute to the costs as well? How are you expected to contribute?
  • Should you plan on working while you are attending school?
  • Do you currently have any private scholarships or state merit scholarships that you plan to put toward tuition?
  • Do your family’s assets meet the threshold for you to be eligible for federal financial aid?

While the federal government assumes that a family will help pay for a child to attend college, your family is not obligated to fund your higher education. Whatever the result of the conversation, maintain your cool. Instead of becoming angry or upset, be productive.

Determine first how much you can afford without any financial aid, with or without your parent’s help. Remember, college lasts anywhere from two to four years, and tuition rates often rise each year. If you know that you (and your family) have a certain amount of money in savings, divide that amount by the number of years you plan on being in school. Then, add in any scholarships that you’ve already won. Scholarships may be one-time earnings or spread out over the length of your education. Likewise, they may be paid to you directly or applied to tuition by your school. Check the fine print to determine how and when your award will be applied to your education.

You can use the FAFSA4caster and/or the College Board calculator to determine your expected family contribution and the amount of federal financial aid for which you may be eligible. Factor in any state aid, institutional aid, and additional private scholarships for which you will apply or expect to receive if you were to attend each school. This will give you a ballpark idea of what you will be expected to contribute toward the cost of your education.

Remember, students who are not citizens or permanent, legal residents are not eligible for any federal financial aid. Furthermore, students without documents may not qualify for in-state tuition even if they are planning to attend a public institution in their current state of residence. Only nine states allow students without documents to access state-based scholarships, and students are required to hold DACA. The best bet for financial aid for students without documents, particularly those without DACA, is to turn to private scholarships, though it may take some digging to find them. Consider this when determining how much you and your family can afford to pay for college.

Each scholarship that you win decreases the ticket price of your education. Applying early and often (throughout high school) for private scholarships can make a significant dent in your overall cost of attendance; however, your federal financial aid package may decrease as your private aid awards increase.

This article will walk you through the process of determining your out-of-pocket costs at each of your prospective schools.

Understand that different types of schools have different costs.

Looking up the price of a school on its website can induce sticker shock. Often, though, the listed price is the maximum price that you would have to pay if you received no financial aid from any sources. Not all schools follow the pattern described below, however. Some have made it their mission to ensure that all of their students get the full amount of need-based financial aid for which they qualify. In cases like this, an Ivy League school like Harvard University may actually end up cheaper than any of your in-state, public institutions.

Simply going by average sticker price, public schools are less expensive than private schools, and public schools in the state where you reside are cheaper than public schools outside of your state; this goes for four-year, two-year, and less-than-two-year public institutions. Furthermore, community colleges and vocational schools typically cost less per semester (or credit hour) than four-year institutions. A community college or vocational school in your home state, then, is likely to be your cheapest college option. However, the program that you’re interested in may not be offered at local two-year institutions or your future career may require a four-year degree. If this is the case, you may choose to look at public four-year institutions in your home state, public four-year institutions in other states, or private four-year institutions. Since community college and vocational programs are generally shorter than four years, they are almost always cheaper than the alternative over the length of a degree or certificate program. Below are types of schools listed in order from least to most expensive, based on average cost of attendance and excluding any financial aid you might receive:

  • Community colleges or vocational schools in your home state
  • Community colleges or vocational schools out of state
  • Public four-year institutions in your home state
  • Public four-year institutions out of state
  • Private four-year institutions

If you are considering pursuing an exclusively online degree or taking both in-person and online classes, calculating your prospective costs may be trickier. There are some online-only programs, but many online degrees are offered through brick-and-mortar institutions. Compare the cost of online and in-person classes. The price may vary depending on whether you are an in-state or out-of-state student or whether the class is offered online only or if it has both in-person and online components.

Search for colleges where your out-of-pocket costs will be the lowest.

Knowing the general pattern of costs of attendance at different schools is great, but when you get into the details of each school, things can get more complicated. Once you’ve created a general list, you’ll want to narrow it down even further.

  • Narrow your list down to include only accredited institutions that accept federal financial aid. If a school is not accredited, meaning it has not successfully proven that its academic and admission requirements, ethics, and faculty reputation are held to a high standard, remove it from your list; a degree from a nonaccredited institution is practically meaningless. Students attending nonaccredited institutions are also not permitted to receive federal financial aid.
    • The federal government is the largest provider of financial aid in the country, administering billions of dollars in aid to students who are U.S. citizens, residents, or eligible noncitizens each year. Most federal aid is need-based; it intends to help students with financial need by awarding grants and low-interest loans and recommending them for work-study positions. There is no reason not to apply for federal financial aid, even if you aren’t sure you will qualify. You can fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid each year starting on October 1 (the earlier, the better). The results of the FAFSA, including how much your family is expected to contribute toward tuition costs, will be sent to schools you select so that their financial aid offices can calculate awards. Awards come in three forms: grantsloans, and work-study.
  • Consider nonprofit colleges before looking into for-profit colleges. Every college is either a nonprofit or a for-profit, and your prospective school’s status primarily indicates how it will spend your tuition money and its other revenue. (Nonprofit schools reinvest into the school; for-profit schools distribute most of their profits to shareholders and other employees.) A school’s status as either a nonprofit or a for-profit can also have an impact on how much you pay and how much financial aid you qualify for. Think of it this way: If for-profit schools are trying to make money, they are going to drive up their sticker prices and offer fewer opportunities for institutional financial aid. After all, giving you a tuition break would mean less money for them to keep. Nonprofits, on the other hand, set their sticker prices based on the minimum amount of money it would cost them to maintain their facilities and programs, which means they are almost always less expensive than their for-profit counterparts.
  • Find out if each school is need-blind or need-awareWhen applying to a college, determine if they have a need-blind or a need-aware admissions policy. Need-blind schools accept students regardless of their financial need, while need-aware schools consider financial need for at least a portion of their applicants.
  • Determine if any of the schools on your list are committed to meeting 100% of your financial need. Some colleges are committed to making their programs accessible to anyone, regardless of their ability to pay. If a school is committed to meeting financial need, you will only have to pay the amount of your estimated family contribution each year. Your unmet need will be covered by other sources of aid.
  • Compare in-state and out-of-state tuition at public institutions. Public universities are generally more expensive for out-of-state students than in-state students. Not only is tuition higher for out-of-state students, but typically financial aid for out-of-state students is limited because these schools want to attract the best in-state students.
  • Consider colleges where you have a good chance of winning a merit or athletic scholarship. You can start applying for private scholarships (those that don’t come from the federal government, the state, or a school) way before your senior year of high school. These scholarships come from churches, nonprofit organizations, scientific societies, corporations, and even benevolent individuals, and they can be applied directly to your tuition costs when the time comes. While some are academically focused, others reward creativity, artistic skills, athletics, or various personal traits. Start applying when you’re a freshman in high school and continue through graduation. Even the smallest amount will reduce your overall college costs.

Consider costs beyond education.

Don’t forget to factor in the cost of living in the area where the school is located. Can you live on campus or will it be necessary for you to live off campus? Will you be able to afford living on your own off campus or will you need to find a roommate? Will you have to pay for all your own food or can you get on a meal plan? If you move to a large city, how much will it cost to take public transportation to and from your classes? Do you have a car that you plan on taking to college? You’ll need to pay for gas, maintenance, and parking. If you are planning on taking advantage of study abroad opportunities, remember that these programs have costs beyond tuition, and costs can be dependent on the exchange rate between the U.S. and the country to which you’d be traveling. Finally, how often do you plan to go home during the school year? Plan for the cost of airplane tickets or driving cross-country.

These are just a few of the questions that you should be able to answer when you are considering your entire college budget. Factor in a little money to have fun, too, especially if you’re living in a new place with lots of cultural opportunities!

Page last updated: 07/2017