With college being so expensive, it’s no surprise that many people are looking for the colleges that offer the most financial aid. Being able to avoid paying at least some of the hefty price tag of a college education is a big deal — especially since it can help you avoid the cost of debt.
In addition to public colleges and universities, there is also financial aid available at private colleges. Here’s what you need to know about financial aid, and where to find the best financial aid packages.
How Does Financial Aid Work?
The idea behind financial aid is that students receive help paying the cost of college. There are two main types of financial aid, need-based and merit-based.
In both cases, you usually need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to qualify. After considering your information, families may be awarded a dollar amount designed to help you pay at least some of your costs — although there are schools that meet full need.
Need-Based Financial Aid
Need-based financial aid is based on your family’s demonstrated financial need. When you fill out the FAFSA, the government and school takes into account your family’s income and assets and determines how much money you should be able to put toward your student’s education. This is called your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC.
Let’s say your student wants to attend a college that costs $30,000 a year. Your EFC is $10,000. Your financial need is the difference between the cost of college and your EFC, so your financial need is $20,000.
For schools that meet 100% need, an effort to cover that gap is made. You still have to come up with $10,000 to help pay for school, but you end up paying significantly less than the full cost of school.
A mix of grants and scholarships are often used to meet the financial need. The government offers grants for those who meet need requirements, and some schools have their own financial aid to help you meet the cost of school as needed.
Merit-Based Financial Aid
Rather than being based strictly on need, merit-based aid is more concerned with specific criteria and qualifications. You might need to fill out the FAFSA as well as the CSS Profile in order to qualify for merit-based aid. Additionally, institutions might have their own requirements for filling out applications for college grants and scholarships.
You can also usually apply for merit-based financial aid from third parties. Many local and national organizations give out private scholarships and grants based on grades, extracurricular activities, essays, volunteer work, and other traits and characteristics.
In addition to getting need-based aid, it can make sense to apply for merit-based help as well.
Schools with the best financial aid often provide a mix of need-based and merit-based aid to help you cover the cost. Plus, applying through various outside organizations, especially for local private scholarships, can go a long way toward helping you avoid taking out any student loans.
Where Do Student Loans Fit?
In some cases, a financial aid package might include student loans. Federal student loans can provide you with a way to cover some of the costs that might not be covered with grants and scholarships. And, if federal loans aren’t enough, private lenders, like College Ave Student Loans, can help fill any remaining college funding gaps.
Colleges That Give the Most Financial Aid
One way to reduce your overall cost of college is to apply to colleges with the best financial aid policies.
What a lot of families don’t realize, is that the most free money for college students receive, generally comes directly from the college they attend, either in the form of needs based aid or merit based scholarships.
You might even be surprised to discover that financial aid from private colleges makes even the most expensive schools more affordable than you thought.
Schools That Meet Full Need
There are schools that meet 100% need for students, and even some that pride themselves in being “no loan” schools. It’s important to remember that schools that meet full need for students only count the financial need as demonstrated on the FAFSA. So, this is need demonstrated beyond the EFC.
These are schools that use college grants and scholarships to ensure that some — or even all — of their students can attend with the help of aid, and potentially without the need to take out student loans.
Here are 20 schools with generous financial aid to consider.
1. Amherst College
Awarding about $50 million in scholarships each year, Amherst College, which is located in Massachusetts, prides itself in meeting the needs of its students. While some students still end up taking on debt, it’s a much smaller percentage (3%) than what many other colleges see.
2. Brown University
Located in Rhode Island, Brown University claims to meet the financial need of its students. With an average financial aid package of more than $48,000, it’s clear that Brown makes an effort to help its students succeed without a lot of student loan debt.
3. Barnard College
While you might be able to get 100% of your need met by attending Barnard, the fact that this private institution is located in Manhattan might make it harder for you to cover some of the other costs of living. But this private college is prestigious, and could be one way for you to get an education without too much debt.
4. Colby College
This small college in Maine offers you access to beautiful scenery as well as being one of the colleges with generous need based financial aid. The average financial aid package for a student with need at Colby is more than $45,000, allowing your student the opportunity to limit student loan debt when they attend.
5. Columbia University
According to Columbia University, 100% of the need demonstrated by first year and transfer students is met by the school. If your family has a combined income of less than $60,000 a year, you won’t be expected to pay for attendance at the school at all. That’s pretty good, considering that Columbia’s annual tuition and fees amount to more than $55,000.
6. Dartmouth College
If your family makes less than $100,000 a year, you can expect to get need-based financial aid from this well-known college. This is a no-loans approach to financial aid for those from middle class and low income families. Dartmouth is in the process of working on a fundraising effort that would provide a no-loans experience to all undergraduates.
7. Davidson College
This North Carolina school claims to provide college grants and scholarships and other aid to students who need it. For attendees that can’t afford the tuition and fees — more than $50,000 a year — getting need-based aid is a big help.
8. Duke University
This well-known school in North Carolina is another that’s known as one of the schools that meet full need. And, for those from families make less than $60,000 a year, students aren’t expected to contribute anything, even if the EFC formula says you should be providing some money for your student’s education.
9. Harvard University
If you can get into Harvard, one of the most prestigious schools in the country, you can get help paying the high sticker price. Students from families that make less than $65,000 a year aren’t expected to contribute toward paying anything. For students with financial need, Harvard will meet the full amount.
10. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
One of the hardest schools to get into is MIT. However, if you can get into the school, you’re likely to get help in the form of financial aid. This is a good thing, since tuition and fees cost more than $51,000 a year.
11. Northwestern University
Northwestern, located in Illinois, offers you access to Chicago and other benefits. However, it also provides access to need-based financial aid. Those with financial need might get as much as $45,000 or more to help them pay the big price tag for students.
12. Pomona College
If the west coast is more your style, Pomona College in California might be a good choice for you. This school meets 100% of the need demonstrated by its students, which is a big help as the cost of tuition and fees at the school top $49,000 per year.
13. Princeton University
Another of the most prestigious schools, Princeton offers students the opportunity to have their need met. In fact, the average award for those who require need-based aid is more than $49,000. If you get into a school like Princeton, it can make sense to take a look at the aid package before you let sticker shock ruin your dreams.
14. Rice University
Located in Texas, Rice recently launched a program to cover the cost of college for students from families that make less than $130,000 per year. In fact, if you make less than $65,000 a year, Rice will also provide grants that can help cover room and board on top of the cost of tuition and fees.
15. Stanford University
Don’t let the high cost (more than $49,000) of this California school scare you off from applying. There’s a good chance you’ll be able to cover many of the costs if you qualify for need-based financial aid. Check your EFC and your income to see if you meet the requirements for help paying for school at Stanford.
16. Swarthmore College
Like many of the other schools on this list, Swarthmore, located in Pennsylvania, has a hefty price tag — more than $50,000 a year for tuition and fees. However, like the other schools on this list, you can get some solid financial aid. You’ll get 100% of your need met.
17. University of Chicago
With the help of college grants and scholarships, as well as a work program, the University of Chicago aims to ensure that all students have their need met. This is a solid help for students who might struggle to pay the tuition and fees, which are more than $50,000 a year.
18. Vanderbilt University
Located in Tennessee, those who attend Vanderbilt also enjoy a relatively low cost of living. Plus, because Vanderbilt strives to be a no-loans school, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to get some of your college paid for, with the average financial aid package amounting to more than $46,000.
19. Vassar University
Vassar is located in Poughkeepsie, New York, which is only a short train ride from New York City. The average financial aid package for students with need is more than $50,000, so it can help you get a good education without breaking the band.
20. Yale University
One of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the United States, Yale University in Connecticut has a reputation for providing a great education — at a high price. However, a large amount of that price can be paid through college grants and scholarships. Yale claims to meet 100% financial need without loans, and its average need-based scholarships average more than $49,000.
To get more information, download the top 30 schools that offer the most need-based aid (the download is available at the end of the article).
Schools That Offer the Most in Merit-Based Aid
Maybe your EFC is higher than you expected, or your family income is enough that you don’t receive the level of need-based aid you expected. In these cases, merit-based aid can be a big help. Make sure to also apply to third-party organizations for private scholarships.
However, you might also get some help from your school, based on your merit. If you don’t get enough merit aid, you might need to turn to federal and private loans, like those offered by College Ave.
Here are some of the colleges that are more generous with financial aid based on merit.
1. Albion College
Located in Michigan, Albion College offers merit grants to about 25% of its undergraduates. The merit aid is usually more than $19,000. That isn’t enough to offset a price tag of more than $57,000 a year, but it can reduce the amount students take in students loans.
2. Augustana University
At this school, located in South Dakota, about 39% of the students receive merit aid. You have a reasonably good chance of getting help based on your characteristics and accomplishments when you attend Augustana.
3. Cardinal Stritch University
Located in Wisconsin, this school associated with the Roman Catholic faith offers courses in multiple cities. The average merit award for students who don’t have need is more than $21,000, and is enough to pay for about half the cost of attendance.
4. Clarke University
This Iowa school is associated with the Archdiocese of Dubuque, so it has a Catholic bent. The town is picturesque, and the school overlooks the Mississippi River. More than half your tuition can be covered with the merit-based aid offered by Clarke, allowing you to reduce the amount you borrow for school.
5. College of Idaho
If you like being near the outdoors, this college, located in Idaho, can be a good choice. In addition to being located near the outdoors, the College of Idaho is close to Idaho’s capital, Boise. The typical size of a merit grant at this school is $15,600.
6. College of the Ozarks
This Christian university located in Missouri is affiliated with the Presbyterian church. It’s important to note that this school is a no-tuition school, so those accepted don’t have to worry about tuition. All students are expected to work on campus, though, to earn money to pay for other costs associated with college. Debt is strongly discouraged, and the school aims to help students accomplish their schooling without student loans.
7. Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art
You’ll have a better chance of getting merit aid at this school, located in New York, New York, as more than half of students receive aid. The award grant in some cases is as much as half the cost of tuition and fees, making it possible to significantly reduce costs.
8. Cedarville University
At Cedarville University, located in Ohio, you can get a merit grant that covers almost half your tuition. However, there’s still the other half to consider. Other types of aid can help you reduce the amount you need to borrow in the long run.
9. Hendrix College
One thing to be aware of with this school in Arkansas is the fact that it has a fairly high sticker price. It costs around $60,000 a year to attend. However, the merit grant is also fairly sizable, averaging more than $25,000. Additionally, 35% of students receive merit grants.
10. Hollins University
Get a little southern charm with your education. This private college is located in Virginia, and near a number of places to sightsee with regard to American history. You can get more than $29,000 in merit aid, which is enough to cover more than half the cost of the school.
11. Illinois College
This top-ranked college is located in Jacksonville, Illinois, not too far from St. Louis, Missouri. If you want a small town feel for college, but want access to the city, this can be a good choice for you. The school offers more than $19,000 in merit aid to students, which is almost enough to cover half the cost of attending.
12. Loras College
The average size of a merit grant at Loras College is more than $16,000. As a result, if you get merit aid from this school in Iowa, you can significantly reduce the amount of student loans you have to take out. Consider other sources of merit aid to try to avoid student loans altogether.
13. Lycoming College
As one of the 50 oldest colleges in the U.S., Lycoming, which is located in Pennsylvania, has a rich educational tradition. The school offers, on average, more than $25,000 to undergraduate students who don’t have need. Combined with other college grants and scholarships, it should be possible to
14. Maryville College
Located in Tennessee, this college is between the Great Smoky Mountains, offering plenty of outdoor recreation, and Knoxville, for trips into the city. It’s a good location, and a small school with a lot to offer. The average merit award is more than $22,000.
15. Monmouth College
This is a strictly undergraduate college located in Illinois. It’s another school affiliated with religion. For merit aid, students can expect more than $21,000, which is enough to cover almost half the cost of attendance. Other sources of funding can help cover the other costs.
16. Mount Vernon Nazarene University
This religious institution in Ohio offers a merit grant that is, on average, $14,500. That’s almost enough to cover half the sticker price of attendance. Look for other ways to get financial aid and funding to cover the rest of the cost.
17. Ouachita Baptist University
For those who want a more religious experience in college, this school, located in Arkansas, can be a good place to go. The school offers about 35% of its undergrads a merit-based grant, reducing the overall cost of attendance. With the help of some other college grants and scholarships, it should be possible to borrow very little in student loans.
18. Southern Wesleyan University
Located in South Carolina, this religious university offers a number of degree programs. Undergraduates who are accepted can receive merit aid for up to half the cost of attending. This can be very helpful when it comes to reducing how much money needs to be borrowed to offset a funding gap.
19. Truman State University
Located in Missouri, Truman State offers about 35% of students merit-based aid. If you can get additional scholarships and grants in addition to what’s offered by the school, you might be able to reduce how much you end up needing in student loans.
20. Westminster College
This school offers a fairly good deal and gives out a fair amount of aid. About 34% of students receive some type of merit-based financial aid. Additionally, the average grant is more than $12,000. However, this school also has a slightly lower sticker price than some others on the list, making it a reasonably good deal.
To get more information, download our list of top 30 colleges that offer merit aid to 100% of students attending those schools (the download is available at the end of the article)..
Parents Share Their Experiences With College Grants, Need Based-Aid and Merit Scholarships
When preparing to pay for college, finding colleges that give the most financial aid can be a big help. However, even with need-based and merit-based scholarships, it’s still possible to end up paying a pretty big chunk of change to a college or university.
Different families go through different challenges.
Here are some of the experiences and tips from families who have gone through the process.
Nikki Berrian — Look for Schools That Fit Your Student
One of the biggest challenges, according to Nikki Berrian, was the fact that there were so many deadlines. She pointed out that organizing, prioritizing and keeping up with all the deadlines can be difficult. Nikki’s student was able to get a full-cost of attendance from the school, based on merit, and a local organization also helped by providing a scholarship to cover the cost of a study abroad program.
However, Nikki didn’t feel like there was a lot of helpful information on merit-based awards from her student’s school.
“Our school counseling department did not provide helpful or timely information for our family regarding merit aid,” says Nikki. However, she did find them helpful in other ways. “The school magnet counselors were instrumental in providing letters of recommendations and helping us to identify safety, target, and reach schools.”
By utilizing the counselors, Nikki was able to figure out how to find the right match for her student — a place that would offer a four-year attendance award based on merit.
“Find schools that will find your student attractive,” she suggests. “This might mean considering schools outside of your geographic region, choosing schools that do not heavily recruit students for their intended major.”
If you know that you might not receive enough need-based aid, look for schools that focus heavily on merit-based aid. However, to do this, you need to look at the school stats, Nikki points out. She suggests looking at schools and applying to those for which your student is likely to be in the top 25% of the recruitment pool.
“Look at smaller, private, lesser-known institutions,” Nikki says.
Cathy Jones — Document Activities for Merit-Based Aid
Cathy’s daughter applied for various merit-based scholarships designed to help her pay for her schooling. The combination of scholarships from different organizations allowed for the student to put together her own aid package.
Some of the scholarships that Cathy’s daughter received include:
- The PEO Star Scholarship, which is aimed at young women and requires proof of GPA, volunteer work, leadership skills, and extracurricular activities.
- Presidential Scholarship, which was offered through her school and required that she go to the school and be interviewed by a panel.
- Girl Scout Gold Award Scholarship, which included a specific application and an essay.
- Merit Scholarship, which was automatically offered through the school, based on standardized test scores and GPA.
- Graduate of Distinction Scholarship from her high school district, for meeting certain requirements.
“The school’s website lists types of merit and qualifications,” says Cathy, who found the college’s website a valuable resource.
Preparing to apply for merit scholarships starts early, though. Cathy suggests keeping track of activities, volunteer opportunities, and other important details as you go along.
“Keeping volunteer work, clubs, leadership positions, and awards documented as you go makes it easy to remember when you need that information,” says Cathy.
Creating and updating a resume can be a good way to make sure all the information is kept in one place.
On top of being a good source of documentation, a resume can also be a valuable resource when asking for letters of recommendation.
“Provide a resume for those writing letters,” says Cathy. “That way, they can add information they may not know.”
Cathy also suggests letting letter writers know in advance that you need a letter. Encourage your student to develop good relationships with teachers, bosses, and others who can provide positive information to support a merit-based scholarship application.
Teemati Sharma — Need-Based Aid Won’t Cover Everything
Even at schools that meet full need, it’s important to realize that it might not cover the entire cost of attendance at the school.
Teemati Sharma’s student is attending an expensive school. The student received need-based financial aid of $20,000 per year. “I still have to pay $50,000 per year, though,” says Teemati.
While the school offered good information about the types of aid available, Teemati wishes that she had done more research. The school her student attends does not provide merit aid, and Teemati thinks that more research could have possibly helped reduce the overall out of pocket cost.
Teemati also warns that it’s important to pay attention to formulas at school that offer need-based financial aid and not merit-based aid.
“Trying to get more money was a struggle,” says Teemati. “They have a strict formula and stick to it. They don’t look at loans, and primarily focus on your income and home equity.”
Because of this, Teemati’s student was unable to get more need-based aid, even though it might have made sense to award her more. At some schools, you might be able to get a better deal by calling and speaking with the financial aid office, even though it didn’t work in Teemati’s case. However, there are schools that are a little more flexible and might offer additional merit aid on top of need-based aid.
Teemati suggests focusing on the CSS Profile when filling out applications. “This profile is very important and I should have done more research on how to complete it,” she says.”
Additionally, Teemati says to consider where your child is applying, and whether you’re ready to meet a financial shortfall.
“Make sure your child only applies to schools you are ready to pay for if needed,” she says.
Bottom Line: There’s Financial Aid Available if You Look at the Right Colleges
Colleges generous with financial aid aren’t always what you think they are. In fact, there’s a surprising amount of financial aid for private colleges — especially small schools. Consider schools that offer both need-based and merit-based financial aid, as well as grants and scholarships offered by federal and state governments.
As your student applies for school, make sure you understand the types of aid offered at the school, and consider applying for private scholarships from outside sources. Start early to keep track of different options.
Make sure your child fills out the FAFSA and the CSS Profile, if required, to ensure that more bases are covered for need-based and merit-based financial aid options. Additionally, if you have a funding gap after receiving federal aid, you might want to consider private loans from companies like College Ave.
In the end, the goal is to get as many college grants and scholarships as possible in order to reduce the amount of student loans needed to help pay for college.
Download your own copy of the list of colleges that offer the best financial aid. After entering your information, you’ll receive an email with a copy of the list.
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This article has been sponsored by CollegeAve Student Loans.