How to Find an Affordable College

Tips include using net price calculators, finding colleges that want you, learning about merit aid options, researching alumni earnings, asking questions on tours, and considering community colleges
Girl and dad looking for affordable colleges on a laptop

Everyone knows that college is a significant investment. And though not everyone goes to college, millions of students enroll every year. If you're a family helping your child with the college search, what can you do to find higher education options that are affordable? We have a few ideas.

Use Net Price Calculators

Every college website has a Net Price Calculator, and the anonymous tool is intended to give students an estimate of the financial aid they could receive at the school upon acceptance. The figures really are just an estimate, but they can provide an idea of the affordability of a college based on your family's personal finances. Use them to help you get a sense of the net price you might pay at each school.

Find Colleges That Want You

Most colleges have financial aid to give, whether it's need-based, merit-based, or both. Though some federal need-based aid is provided strictly based on a family's finances, like the Pell Grant, most need-based aid, and all merit-based aid, has a subjective component to it. That means the school decides who gets it. And schools are generally going to give more financial aid to students at the top of their applicant pool. As you review the SAT scores and GPAs of admitted students at each college, look for schools where your student's scores and grades are at the high end of the ranges listed. Those schools could provide more financial aid than a school where the student's credentials aren't as competitive.

Learn about Merit Aid Options

Many schools offer merit-based aid. And some of these scholarships are based on certain criteria, like gender, intended major, or state of residence. Find out the merit-based aid options at every college of interest. Students may find that they fit the criteria for a certain merit scholarship, which could make the school a more financially feasible option. Keep in mind that some merit-based aid requires a separate application, so take good notes on which ones do.

Research Alumni Earnings

Though the price you pay for college is important, you should consider as well the return on your investment. What are alumni of the school earning once they graduate? Did their education help them secure employment that pays well? You can find this information on the U.S. Department of Education's College Scorecard, which reports the median annual earnings of graduates from every college in the nation. This can give you a rough idea of your earning potential after graduation.

Ask Questions on Tours

Whenever you take a campus tour, ask the tour guide and any current students you meet about how students there pay for college costs. Are there plentiful jobs on campus?  Does the school have extra scholarships for current students? Is the campus surrounded by a city or town that provides employment opportunities? Go right to the source to find out what students are doing to get their expenses covered.

Consider Community Colleges

Community colleges offer a college education for less. Full stop. Yes, the experience can be different than one on a traditional college campus, but most community colleges offer vibrant environments with talented professors, a variety of activities, and students excited about their education. Students who begin their postsecondary path at a community college will likely save money, and if they're pursuing a bachelor's degree, many states, including Massachusetts, have programs in place to help students successfully transfer to a state school and save even more on costs when they get there.

As you seek out affordable college options, remember that you won't really know the net price your family will pay for a specific school until you receive your financial aid offer. If there's a pricey college that seems to be a good fit, go ahead and apply. You might receive more financial aid than you realize, making the school a financially feasible option.