Talking about money with your family can be an uncomfortable experience, but it is important when it comes to determining where to apply to colleges. You need to get an idea of what you can afford before deciding where you want to submit applications. Consider all sources of income: investments and assets, part-time and full-time jobs, and savings accounts. If your parents cannot help you out at all, you will likely be eligible for federal financial aid. State universities are typically going to be the cheapest option if you are an in-state student, and private liberal arts colleges have the highest tuition bills before you factor in need- and merit-based financial aid.


Get a good idea of your budget.

In the Princeton Review’s 2015 survey of 12,000 college applicants and parents of applicants, 90% said that receiving financial aid would be “very or extremely necessary” in order for a student to attend college. Ask the hard questions and talk with your parents about budgeting for college. Do they have money saved to help you pay or will you need to take on the full tuition load by yourself? 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? Determine first how much you can afford without any financial aid, then use the FAFSA4caster to determine your expected family contribution and the amount of federal aid for which you may be eligible. Consider also any scholarships for which you will apply.

Explore a school’s financial aid image.

  • Reputation: Don’t look at the overall price tag and cost of attendance, but at a school’s financial aid reputation. Many expensive private schools have a large endowment that allows them to give more merit-based grants and scholarships. What scholarships and grants do your schools offer?
  • Financial aid statistics: What percentage of incoming freshmen receive financial aid? It’s important to determine what percentage of students receive grants and what percentage of students end up having to take out loans to cover the cost of college, since loans have to be repaid. It is also important to find out the percentage of students whose financial need was fully met; the higher this percentage, the better.
  • Your estimated cost: Use the financial aid statistics and the information you’ve gathered from the FAFSA4caster to determine how much you would have to pay to attend each institution. If the school meets 100% of financial need, then you’ve found a school that’s going to give you a good deal. However, remember that your definition of financial need and the school’s definition of financial need (the difference between the cost of attendance at an institution and your expected family contribution) might be different.

Consider these financial aid tips.

  • In-state vs. out-of-state: 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.
  • Need-blind vs. need-aware: When 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.
  • Selectivity: Generally speaking, the best deals come from the most selective schools. When financial aid is included, highly selective schools have some of the the lowest costs of attendance of any schools in the country. Somewhere like Harvard University, which doesn’t expect any family contribution from families that make less than $65,000 annually, is probably going to be less expensive than your public, state college.

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 for public transportation to get 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: 04/2017