College Admissions

Bringing Down the Cost of College – Part 2

At a time when housing values are down, and many people have seen friends and relatives lose jobs, even families that have a healthy income are worried about paying more than $50,000 a year for college.


Getting maximum value for your money doesn’t mean going for the lowest tuition.  While cost is a real concern, you need to look beyond tuition and consider the quality of the educational experience.  A private college might cost more per year, but if you have small classes with attention from professors who will nurture you and provide research opportunities and recommendation letters that will help when it’s time to apply to graduate school, and you can get the courses you need to graduate in four years, that college may offer better value than a lower-priced public school.


Private colleges can be cheaper than you might think, and schools located in the South are often less expensive than those in the Northeast.  Students who want a small liberal arts college can pay almost $40,000 in tuition at Muhlenberg College.  Or they can head for Trinity University in San Antonio, which also offers small classes and great undergraduate research opportunities, and pay less than $29,000 tuition.  Strong students may qualify for academic merit scholarships at both colleges, bringing the cost down even more.


In North Carolina, Elon University’s tuition is under $26,000, and a student will find a school where no class is larger than 35 students. Personal attention from professors and staff, a beautiful campus and strong sense of community have made Elon very popular in recent years. Merit scholarships can make this school a bargain for strong students who don’t want to get lost in a big public university.


But big public universities can also offer merit scholarships to out of state students, as well as honors programs that provide some elements of a smaller private college along with the big sports and school spirit of a big university.  Penn State University’s Schreyer Honors College offers top students a minimum $3,500 scholarship, as well as smaller classes with top professors, great research opportunities and housing in the center of campus.


Even colleges with higher price tags may be more affordable than they seem. While Ivy League and other elite universities like Stanford, Duke and Georgetown only provide need-based financial aid, there are other highly selective schools that offer a financial incentive to attract top students. Outstanding students who don’t qualify for need-based financial aid may be able to get merit-based scholarships at University of Chicago, Washington University, Vanderbilt University and Johns Hopkins University.


These are just a few examples of the merit-based aid offered by hundreds of colleges and universities. Students have the best chance of getting merit-based scholarships at schools where they are at the top of the applicant pool. But that doesn’t mean you need dazzling grades or test scores to get a scholarship. At Rider University, a private school of about 5,000 students in New Jersey, a student with a 3.0 GPA and SAT score of 1000 (critical reading and math) would be eligible for an $8,000 renewable scholarship, worth $32,000 over four years.


Most schools automatically consider all applicants for merit-based aid, but some require a separate scholarship application. Merit scholarships are usually renewable for a total of four years, if students maintain acceptable academic performance.


Many colleges also offer art and music scholarships, though the amounts are generally not as large as academic scholarships. In addition, some schools have special scholarships for students who have demonstrated exceptional leadership, or would bring some other important quality to campus. These scholarships typically also require a strong academic record.


In my experiences, students receive the most generous scholarships directly from colleges. But you can use one of the many available search engines, like, to locate outside scholarships for which your child is eligible to apply. The scholarships that are open to everyone, and especially the ones that offer significant money, are extremely competitive.


A student has a better chance of winning scholarships sponsored by local organizations, and if the applications are not too burdensome, they may be worth pursuing, even though they are usually smaller awards. If you spend three hours writing an essay that wins a scholarship of $1,000, that’s pretty good hourly pay. Check your high school college and career center for scholarship listings. 


While cost is a major factor in choosing a college, the decision to attend a school can’t be made on price tag alone. The real bottom line in choosing a college has to be whether it is a good match for your child. If you do some research and are open to the possibilities, you can find schools that are both affordable and good matches.