Financial aid is quite a tricky thing, and though there are many ways of gauging aid before you apply to schools, you never quite know what your packages will be like. For myself, financial aid was a huge concern, as my parents are at the low end of the middle class. I would never be able to afford a private school without huge amounts of aid, and even my state schools, University of Califonia and California State University, are very expensive in-state schools.

In total, I applied to 15 different colleges and universities, mainly on the East and West coasts, along with University of Chicago. I applied to many top colleges that I knew had the best need-based aid, along with less selective private institutions where I had a chance of getting merit based scholarships and a few public schools in California and Nevada. I really wasn’t positive I’d get into one of my reach schools that offered good need-based aid so I, like many others, cast a wide net to try to get the most amount of aid I could.

In the end, I was admitted to 3 top schools that gave equally good financial packages, giving me a few reasonably affordable choices. Here is a breakdown of the types of schools I applied to and the types of aid they give. I’ll also give approximate numbers for the financial aid packages that I received, but keep in mind that these are based off of my family’s income, though they should be pretty indicative of the level of financial that each type of institution can provide.

Highly selective private colleges and universities

I applied to 8 of these schools, and each had an acceptance below 20%. Using net price calculators, they were the most affordable schools for me, offering enough need-based financial aid to make them cheaper than attending my in-state schools.

I think many people find it shocking that these schools can provide such incredible financial aid even though they are incredibly expensive schools. They also might seem to like snobby, rich private schools, but these colleges and universities will usually do all they can to make attending affordable. Most often these schools do not offer merit based scholarships, and if they do, as is the case with University of Chicago, they are very difficult to get because the student body is already incredibly well-qualified. These are usually the best options financially for students with middle to low incomes because they meet full need.

Some examples: Yale University, Swarthmore College, Vassar College, University of Chicago, Wesleyan University

Selective private colleges

I also applied to a number of moderately selective private schools that offered both need-based and merit aid. For me, the packages from these schools were less than the highly selective private colleges, even when I had received a decent amount of merit aid.  These schools have high cost of attendance, but generally offer less aid for “needy” applicants who require a large amount of aid. Another thing to think about: sometimes these schools do not guarantee 100% of need.

Examples: University of Rochester, Case Western Reserve, Willamette

Less selective private and public colleges

For those looking for larger amounts of merit aid, which can make schools affordable for both high and low incomes, I would suggest looking at less selective private and/or public schools. If  you’re above the average admitted students’ GPA and test scores, then you can likely receive a nice amount of merit aid that can make these schools affordable. Often times schools will offer full-tuition or half-tuition scholarships that greatly decrease the cost of attendance.

Note: Many large public universities are highly affordable for Out-of-State students through extensive scholarship programs that guarantee large full-tuition or half-tuition scholarships.

Examples: Azusa Pacific University, University of Nevadea-Reno, University of Alabama

Selective public universities

I also applied to a single public school near where I live. The package from this school included a greater amount of loans, some need-based grants, and some merit aid. The initial cost of attendance at public schools without financial aid is generally much lower than private schools, making them more easily affordable to students coming from more wealthy families and, depending on the schools, can offer enough aid to make attendance generally affordable.

For me, this was the case. I could have afforded to attend this school but it would have required more loans. Public schools are also known to offer immediate merit scholarships with certain cut-offs. If you meet the given standard of a certain GPA or test score, then you receive a certain amount of scholarship money. Another part of public schools are honors colleges, and some programs provide financial aid if you are admitted, along with similar programs such as the Regents’ Scholarship at the University of Califonia schools.

Examples: UC Davis, University of Michigan, University of Virginia

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