It’s that time of the year again where soon-to-be high school seniors start looking at colleges based on location, career interest, size, and, depending on the person’s circumstances, financial aid. For some students, financial aid is the deciding factor when it comes to choosing a college; the best offer wins. For those students who cannot afford an expensive college education, some high school counselors and teachers advise applying to and even attending public institutions since the cost is lower than the one expected from a private institution. While it is true that public schools’ expenses are relatively lower, it does not necessarily mean that a person will have to pay less at a public institution.
So wait, what? Depending on your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC), which is determined once the FAFSA application is filled, the amount of financial aid will vary significantly. Sometimes it can be cheaper to go to a private school than to a public school due to the resources that private schools can provide to incoming students since they do not rely on the government’s assistance and have other ways of funding. In other words, there’s a high possibility of graduating from college with little to no debt if a person has an EFC close to $0 and if they choose to attend a well-recognized private school.
For example, when I was applying to college, I was encouraged to apply to state and city schools located in New York since they were “cheap.” The average estimated cost of attendance of each state school was $22,091 per year. Unfortunately, my family could not afford that, and I knew that attending one of those schools meant that I would be over $40,000 in debt by the end of my college career. And yes, I had federal aid and state aid, but that was not enough to cover the cost of attendance. I still had $9,074 to meet, and once again, my family could not afford that.
I have seen people roll their eyes at me when I say that I can’t afford public schools, and the same people were the ones who asked me why I was applying to private colleges if I couldn’t even afford a public education. Those questions made sense if we compare the cost of attendance of a private school and a public school: while the private school’s expenses make up a total of $61,304, the public school’s expenses only make up a total of $22,091. That’s a $39,213 difference right there—another school’s tuition if we think about it.
So why would I ever apply to a private school? Because they offer me better financial aid and no loans even though the cost of attendance is considerably higher. This of course, varies depending on a person’s economic situation and school of choice. My college list had a large number of schools that were among the best in the nation, had a need-blind policy and that met 100% demonstrated need. Need-blind admissions means that during the process of selection, admissions officers do not take into consideration a person’s economic situation. To meet 100% demonstrated need means that the financial aid department will do what is necessary in order to meet the student’s need; this can include loans depending on a family’s income and/or the school’s policy. Other schools have a no-loans policy, but are need-aware. So everything is about creating a balance.
Instead of having to pay $9,074 out of pocket, I’ll have to pay way less. With no loans. At the end of the day, creating a balance is the key point. If the college is expensive but is famous for giving good financial aid for low income students, go for it. Chances are that if you are a low income student, you will get better financial aid in comparison to a state college. It depends on what works for you—if you think that a school might reject you because of your financial situation, avoid applying to them. If loans are a definite no for you, look at schools that have a no loans policy AND meet 100% demonstrated need. If you’re a low income student (<$60,000 family income), don’t stick to public colleges just because you can’t afford a private education. If the cards are played correctly, you might find pleasant surprises.