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Articles / Paying for College / Can You Afford Your Dream College?

Can You Afford Your Dream College?

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Dec. 16, 2014
The last of the Ivy-elite early admission results will be out this mid-December week. I've witnessed many happy reports from those who got their good news over the past few days or so. Of course, along with that good news comes the financial aid package, which, for those who are not in the “full pay" category, can make the difference between enrolling and having to pick an alternate school because of unaffordability.

Having to forgo enrolling at your dream school because of money is a blow. You've worked hard over the years so far and, finally, you've been rewarded with admission to the school you've longed for. Now, though, the reality of paying the freight has crushed your dreams. Maybe you could afford it with enough loans, but that option raises the old question: How far into long-term debt are you willing to go?

I think I'll trot out my infamous and oft-ridiculed paying-for-college theory, which states: Get into the best and most expensive school that you can. Why do I say this? Simply put, most of the “big," so-called “elite" and “prestigious" (whatever that means) schools have the most generous financial aid policies, meaning that most, if not all, of your family's demonstrated need will be met by them through need-based aid. It also implies that your student loan debt could be significantly lower.

Let me support my statement above, when I say, “That also implies that your student loan debt could be significantly lower." Check out this article: The 20 Colleges With the Lowest Student Loan Debt. There, you will see one particularly amazing statistic:

4. Princeton University (private nonprofit)

Princeton, N.J.

Average debt: $5,552

Graduates with debt: 24%

That's right. In this survey, Princeton University is the school with the fourth lowest student loan debt for its graduates. There are no other Ivy, elite, or other so-called prestigious schools on that 20-school list. I can personally vouch for Princeton's amazing financial aid, because our son graduated from Old Nassau in 1999. His loan debt back then was just over $5K, which means that the figure cited above represents an even lower student debt level than his was, when inflation is factored in. That's impressive.

To keep you further informed about dream school affordability, let me point you to another interesting article: America's 100 Most Expensive Colleges. Let's take a look at the Top 20:

1. Sarah Lawrence College65,480
2. Harvey Mudd College64,427
3. New York University63,472
4. Columbia University63,440
5. University of Chicago62,458
6. Claremont McKenna College62,215
7. Fordham University – Lincoln Center62,192
8. Bard College62,012
9. Dartmouth College61,947
10. Scripps College61,940
11. Oberlin College61,788
12. Trinity College (CT)61,756
13. Pitzer College61,750
14. Bard College at Simon's Rock61,735
15. Northwestern University61,640
16. University of Southern California61,614
17. Haverford College61,564
18. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute61,529
19. Fordham University – Rose Hill61,472
20. Drexel University61,383

We see a few Ivies and other “elites" in the Top 20, but none of the “Big Three" (Princeton, Harvard, and Yale). Now, let's swing over to the College Confidential discussion forum thread, Which schools give as much/more aid than Harvard? to see what posters have to say about that question.

The thread's originator wonders:

– I was wondering, which schools are known to equal Harvard's aid or give even more than Harvard? I only know of Yale, are there any others? If they exist, is it likely that Harvard will match its competitors' packages?

Here are some selected responses:

– Usually, the three top schools for need-based aid are thought to be Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Keep in mind that other schools may give aid based on scholarship/merit or a mix of financial need and merit, and that may, in some cases, exceed the financial aid available at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. As well, other Division I colleges give full athletic scholarships. Athletes in the Ivy League are limited to need-based financial aid. Finally, from time to time, posters will assert that in their own particular circumstances, another school provided more generous financial aid than these three. Those, however, seem to be the exceptions.

I believe that some of the Ivies, including Harvard, will match the aid packages of other Ivies, but not generally of non-Ivies. However, in my own experience with my two sons, Harvard's financial aid package was far and away better than the non-Ivy financial aid, anyway.

To get an idea of what schools will ask of you or your family when it comes to tuition, room, board, and other costs, use the net price calculator at each school's website. These will give you a rough idea, a starting point, of what you can expect your family's cost to be to attend any particular school.

If you are accepted to Harvard, and you have any questions, problems, or issues with your financial aid package, call the financial aid office. They're nice people, they listen, and when appropriate, they make adjustments to packages.

– Having one child at Harvard, and one at Yale, I'm always amazed how each college can look at the same data, yet award different scholarship amounts which vary by thousands of dollars per semester.

For our family, Yale has always been less expensive than Harvard, but that's not the case for every family who had children at both colleges. Run the financial aid calculators for HYP and see how it all shakes out for your family.

Harvard: https://college.harvard.edu/financial-aid/net-price-calculator

Yale: http://admissions.yale.edu/yale-net-price-calculator

Princeton: http://admission.princeton.edu/financialaid/estimator

– My son and daughter were not accepted to each other's school — my daughter (H) was rejected from Yale; my son (Y) was rejected from Harvard. So, I couldn't present Harvard with Yale's offer and ask them to match it. We did fax over my son's financial aid award from Yale to Harvard and ask why Harvard was charging us significantly more money for my daughter when they claim to have the better financial aid. We received a very nice reply that basically said “When you have two children in college at the same time, the second child is cheaper than the first one." I have no idea if that's true, but as we didn't have any leverage, Harvard did not “sweeten" the pot and increase the aid for my daughter.

One caveat to all of this: Many colleges will re-evlaute a student's financial aid package if presented with a more competitive offer from a peer school. But, the student (or parent) needs to ask for side-letter to be added to his or her file that states “If the family's income remains the same, the school will guarantee that the percentage of financial aid for the student's sophomore, junior and senior years will be the same as their freshman year." If you don't get that side-letter, you will be paying the same percentage as originally offered for freshman year in subsequent years.

Bottom Line: You are not going to know what YP offers in financial aid unless you apply RD and are accepted. It's easier to do that for Yale, with their open-ended supplement, than Princeton. How much extra work do you want to do to find out?

What about the other ivies and Stanford?

The other ivies and Stanford do not have the endowments of HYP, so their institutional formulas for financial are not as generous. FWIW: my son was accepted to Dartmouth and Brown (with $20,000 less financial aid per year than Yale offered). Both schools offered to match Yale's aid for his freshman year, but would not offer us a side-letter for his subsequent years.


There are now six US schools that offer need-blind and full-need admissions to international students. Basically, if you can get in, you can afford to go – they are:

– MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Massachusetts

– Harvard University in Massachusetts

– Princeton University in New Jersey

– Yale University in Connecticut

– Dartmouth College in New Hampshire

– Amherst College in Massachusetts

– ^^ That's true, but look closer at the numbersAt UPenn: http://www.internationalstudent.com/schools_awarding_aid/PA/Pennsylvania.html
970 International students attending the college, 50 of them on financial aid, receiving an average award of $29,619.00

At Harvard: http://www.internationalstudent.com/schools_awarding_aid/MA/Massachusetts.html

665 International students attending the college, 435 of them on financial aid, receiving an average award of $36,754.00

Although both schools offer 100% of need to international students, that need is institutionally calculated differently. And percentage wise, 50/970 should tell you that UPenn is balancing it's budget by admitting lots of full-fare paying international students and very few international students that are determined to need financial aid.

There's more wise information on this thread. Be sure to check it out.The bottom line here is this: Don't let sticker price scare you off. Also, if you are blessed enough to get into one of the “big" schools, there is likely a way for you to afford it without having to enter into a lifetime of loan debt.

The other nugget to keep in mind is that the most “prestigious" schools are not always the most expensive (see that Top 20 list above). Things are not always what they appear to be.

So, I wish you well in both your admissions and financial aid quests. Remember: Knowledge can many times be your best defense.

Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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