How to Afford College…When There are No Affordable Colleges in Your State

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According to a new National College Access Network (NCAN) study, 17 states and Puerto Rico don’t have any affordable public colleges.

Let’s say you’re an aspiring college student, hoping to enroll full-time and live on campus, and will be applying for financial aid. You’ve heard public universities can be affordable, so you start your search there, hoping to find a school that’s a good financial fit. To ease the burden and minimize student loan debt, you also plan to work full-time over each summer break. You’re hoping this strategy will cover the cost of college, and have a little left over for living expenses, entertainment, and emergencies.

In theory, this sounds like a smart plan, but the unfortunate reality is our hypothetical student may find fewer options than anticipated. According to a new study from the National College Access Network (NCAN), 17 states and Puerto Rico do not have an affordable public four-year college option for full-time students living on campus, and that even factors in financial aid (grants, tuition discounts, scholarships, and student loans) and full-time work over the summer. NCAN defines affordability as a four-year college where a Pell Grant recipient can cover the costs of college and still have at least $300 available to cover unexpected expenses.


With such dismal stats, you may be wondering: "Who can afford college? How do I afford college?"

We know this sounds discouraging at first, but don’t give up! Your goals are still the same—get a four-year degree from a college that’s affordable, keep student loan debt to a minimum, and get hired after graduation. So, how do you tailor your college plan to reflect this unaffordable reality? Let’s get to it!

Know Affordable Colleges—and the Colleges You Can Afford

The first step to determining which schools are affordable colleges? Know your own finances. If you haven’t already, sit down with your family to go over the numbers and finalize your college budget. Look not just at the initial cost of college, but also at the anticipated increases in costs for all four years and what you can afford each month in student loan payments after graduation. If college affordability is important to you, your budget should become the baseline for all subsequent college discussions—full stop.

Know the Data

You’ve run the numbers and determined your college budget. (High five! That may be the most difficult exercise of all.) Now it’s time to find your best matches. Use the College Scorecard, college net price calculators, and Edmit’s own college comparison tool to find potential colleges that are a good financial fit. Check the latest research and data—like the recent NCAN study—to see if public universities in your state actually aren’t all that affordable.

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Beyond affordability, look at the data regarding outcomes—career services and job preparation, internship opportunities, graduation rates, hiring rates and starting salaries after graduation. While this may take a little more legwork on your part, it can make some universities stand out as potentially better ROI schools compared to others on your list. (Edmit’s Hidden Gems colleges showcases universities and colleges that are both affordable and have great outcomes.)

Widen Your Options

As a potential college student, be open to possibilities you may not have considered, especially when it comes to public versus private colleges. In many cases, private colleges may be more affordable than public universities, particularly in terms of “free money” available through grants and scholarships. Consider starting at a community college to save money, then finishing your degree at a traditional four-year college or university. See if there are discounts for students willing to be resident assistants, if there are unused funds for work-study candidates. The more possibilities you’re open to, the more you may be able to afford.

Act Like a Consumer

The NCAN study drives home the importance of good consumer habits when choosing a college. We know that public colleges in 17 states and Puerto Rico aren’t affordable. For students wanting a public college education in those areas, especially low-income students and/or those who simply don’t want a lot of student loan debt, the onus is on the student to be their own advocate. Until public policy catches up and makes higher education affordable for all, stay atop of the latest trends, do your own research, know what you can afford, and be willing to work with financial aid counselors to find—and enroll at—your best fit college.



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