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How Can I Find Affordable Colleges?

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It feels like forever since we heard any good news about the cost of college. Headlines proclaim that the cost of college is going up, up, up, saddling students with more and more debt. While college is indeed a huge financial decision, the story becomes a bit more complex when we dive into the data. And what the data show is surprising: Finding an affordable college may be more attainable than you think.


The first thing to note is that the sticker price of college is rarely what you actually pay. More than 80 percent of full-time, first-time students receive some sort of financial aid, and there are ways (especially with Edmit) that you can increase the amount of aid you receive. A much better measure of the affordability of a college is what we call net price. Net price takes into account the amount of grants or financial aid that students receive. There’s a good chance you’ll receive a scholarship or aid, and some colleges have an approach where they increase their financial aid every year faster than they increase tuition, meaning they’re actually getting cheaper.



On paper, for example, Dartmouth is $2,500 more expensive than Cornell if you just look at the total price. But once you take into account the average net price for those who received a grant or scholarship, it’s actually $3,200 cheaper!

You could also look at a school like the University of Chicago, which has a blistering price tag of $70,000 per year including living on campus. When you dive into the data, though, its average net price dropped from $31,935 in 2012 to $31,068 in 2015. (That makes it about $600 cheaper than Tulane, too.)  

Since trends are helpful in narrowing down your search, here are rules-of-thumb for finding affordable schools based on the data:

  • If your college happens to be in a town or a rural area, for example, chances are the net price is going up. If it’s in a city or the suburbs, there’s a better chance that net prices are flat or down.
  • Similarly, public colleges do tend to be cheaper than private universities and colleges. Their prices are going up more slowly than private schools’, and their net price is almost half that of a private school. Of course, where you live matters a lot and private schools may come through with a large financial aid package, but public schools very well could end up being where you get the best bang for your buck.
  • And if you’re looking at a smaller school, chances are the net price is increasing less than a big school. The largest schools saw a net price increase of 5.9 percent from 2012 to 2015, while the smallest saw an increase of only 4.7 percent in the same time.

So as you or your child prepare for college, make sure that you don’t get too caught up in sensational headlines. It’s true that college is a big financial commitment, but when you break things down into what you should actually expect to pay after financial aid, it might not be so scary after all.



Jon Fish is the co-founder of Level Education and comes from a background in startups and economics. He holds degrees from Ohio State University and Brandeis University, and can most likely be found with a coffee in hand.



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