1. Dig deeper than the Top 20. The A-minus student is not likely to find any great collegiate deals at the top of the U.S. News rankings. Many of those schools dispense aid solely according to need, a fair system, but one that does not favor the upper middle class. The rest simply have no incentive to offer generous aid packages to very good students. But the economics of collegiate supply and demand are such that when one dips a bit farther down the list, the numbers turn quickly to the student’s advantage. Syracuse, Clemson, Boston University, the University of Washington, and the University of Texas all have admission rates around 50 percent. The same is true for several liberal arts schools at the 30 and 40 rank on the U.S. News list. Such schools are highly prestigious, but they face much more pressure than the Ivies to sell themselves to strong students, and maybe even stronger pressure to keep their numbers up.
2. Look for colleges where your child is above average. The middle 50 SAT range at Williams College is 1310 to 1530, which means that an applicant would need something close to a perfect 1600 to stand out among the applicants. At Scripps College, by contrast, the middle 50 tops out at 1430; and at Earlham College, at 1330, according to 2011 U.S. News statistics. Aid is based partly on how badly the college wants the student, and how badly the student wants the college. A college with a comparatively modest admissions profile will probably offer more money to a Bethesda kid with a 1400 SAT score, because that score will improve the school’s numbers.
By the same logic, only a valedictorian would truly stand out among the applicants to any of the top 10 national universities, where 90 percent of applicants come from the top decile of their class. But on the second page of the rankings, among the schools ranked 50 to 100, a majority of applicants fall below the top decile; at those schools, anyone in the top 10 percent of a high school class is likely to stand out.
3. Stray from the beaten path. Students can sometimes overcome some of the local competition by applying to a college that is farther away or lesser known. A good example is Carleton College. The Minnesota school is a top-10 lib-arts campus according to U.S. News, with an admission rate around 25 percent. But of the 16 WJ students who applied there in the past five years, half got in. Another is Claremont McKenna College. It, too, is a top-10 school, with a 16-percent admit rate.
4. Apply to both public and private universities. Often, families don’t think to apply to top public universities outside their state. Those schools charge a premium to out-of-state students, and until recently, they didn’t seem particularly interested in non-residents. That has changed. Flagship universities in Michigan, Texas, Wisconsin, North Carolina and California are becoming much more interested in non-residents. The schools are good enough to charge full market rates, private rates, to talented non-residents, and they have come to view the revenue as critical to their survival.
There are predictions that those schools will eventually charge something closer to full market rates to resident students, as well, subject to their ability to pay. Even so, top publics offer competitive merit-aid discounts to out-of-state students with strong academic profiles. Their prices tend to be a bit lower to begin with, so an aid package worth $10,000 or $15,000 a year represents a significant savings.
5. Apply to as many of the schools cited above. Ambitious students commonly apply to 10 or 12 schools now, instead of five or six. They do it to counter application inflation, the steady increase in applications per student, and to raise their odds of getting in. It’s a vicious cycle. Financial aid gives parents another good reason to pay for a large numbers of applications. More applications means more aid offers. An applicant who applies to six, eight or 10 colleges where she or he is a strong candidate achieves the same result as the car shopper who calls several dealers. In the end, the family is more likely to get a good deal. Applications cost several hundred dollars. But that’s small change when compared to a $100,000 to $200,000 investment. And it could yield tens of thousands of dollars in tuition savings.