The cost, and value, of attending college is the subject of a growing national conversation. A college degree has economic, personal, and social value, but at a glance, the cost of attending a selective college—any college really—can seem very high. It’s important to understand that your family might not be expected to pay the full cost of tuition, room & board, and other fees. And it’s important to remember that selective schools want the students they’ve chosen to admit to actually enroll and never want cost to get in the way of this. There are a number of programs offered both by colleges and by outside organizations aimed at making college education affordable for your family. We’ll start by explaining some important terms and concepts, then explain the general process for applying for financial aid.
The following information pertains to US citizens or permanent residents. International and undocumented students should consult each school’s website for more information, as each school has different policies for these students. It is vital that you review each school’s financial aid website to understand how they award financial aid to their students.
Types of Financial Aid Policies
Need-Based Financial Aid: This is funding awarded to students based on the cost of attending a particular school and the student’s ability to contribute to that cost. This is determined by reviewing information from financial aid applications (such as the FAFSA) and tax returns. Most selective schools offer need-based financial aid, and some of those schools meet 100% of demonstrated financial need. At a school that meets 100% of demonstrated need, this means, in principle, that no family who applies for need-based aid will be expected to contribute more towards the cost of attendance than their financial aid application demonstrate can be contributed. This also means that need-based aid awards will vary for each family, because they are tailored to their unique financial circumstances.
Merit-Based Financial Aid: This is money that is awarded based on your prior achievements, independent of your financial situation. It could be awarded on the basis of things like a high GPA, strong standardized test scores, athletic ability, research experience, leadership or other accomplishments. Many public schools only offer merit-based financial aid, while most private schools only offer need-based financial aid; several offer a combination of the two.
Need-Blind vs. Need-Aware: When a school has a need-blind admissions process, this means that they read applications and admit students based solely on the information included in the application for admission, without looking at any financial information. If a school is “need-sensitive” or “need-aware,” this means that they are only able to award a limited amount of financial aid, and consider how much financial support students will need when they’re making admission decisions. It is not uncommon for a school to be need-blind for domestic students (US citizens and permanent residents) but need-aware for international students (non-citizens and non-permanent residents).
Federal Pell Grants: The Federal Pell Grant Program provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate students. Grants are dependent upon several factors like the student's expected family contribution (EFC); cost of attendance; full time or part time enrollment. Unlike a loan, the Pell Grant does not have to be repaid. More information can be found on the Department of Education's website.