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Articles / Paying for College / Are We Too Rich to Afford College?

Are We Too Rich to Afford College?

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | March 12, 2015

Question: I believe that my income is outside the range ($400,000) of any need-based aid from any school.  Am I correct?

 I know this sounds like a dumb question, but netting $240k after taxes with high living expenses in a major metro area…$60k is a big chunk that is not really affordable without taking at least some loans.

Unless you have a big family (not necessarily 19 Kids and Counting but at least a couple children in college concurrently) or other extenuating circumstances, your income will put you beyond the range of need-based financial aid.

To get a better sense of where you stand, pick a college that interests you or your child and then do their online “Net Price Calculator,” if you haven’t already done so. While NPC results need to be taken with a few grains of salt, this little exercise will give you at least a ballpark sense of your annual Expected Family Contribution. (All colleges are required to post their NPC online, and a quick Google search should get you to any one that you’re seeking.)  If your EFC is higher than the college’s Cost of Attendance, then you won’t qualify for any need-based financial aid.

When you do the NPC for a college that offers only need-based aid, you are likely to discover that your EFC exceeds the total Cost of Attendance. But some colleges that also offer merit aid (not tied to household income and assets) will factor a putative merit grant into the NPC figures. For instance, the NPC will ask questions about the student’s GPA, standardized test scores and even extracurricular achievements, with the aim of ferreting out the best candidates for merit money.  (But these results need to be taken with a block of salt because the awarding of merit aid is commonly a subjective process that an automated calculator can’t tackle with much accuracy.)

There are plenty of great colleges that provide excellent merit scholarships to top applicants regardless of family income and assets. If you feel that you are caught in a squeeze … too “rich” to afford $60+K/year and too “poor” to pay full freight without feeling pain (and taking on debt) … then merit aid is the way to go. Check out places like Tulane University, Emory University, the University of Southern California, Case Western Reserve University, University of Miami, and Washington University in Saint Louis—just to name a few–if your child is a good student and you’re looking for academic excellence and merit bucks combined. And there are also a handful of schools such as the University of Alabama that take the guesswork out of estimating merit scholarships for most applicants. They publish dollar amounts, based on GPA and test scores, right on their Web site. See http://scholarships.ua.edu/types/out-of-state.html .  Bama is using merit grants to successfully recruit smart out-of-state students, and the enrollment is now up to 51% OOS.

While most parents of college-bound high school students will envy your financial “worries” (and some, no doubt, will even roll their eyes when they read about your concerns), “The Dean” believes that none of us can fully know another family’s situation, and I think it’s reasonable for allof us—rich, poor, or in the middle—to question the value of shelling out a quarter million dollars for a sheepskin, when a quality education can be found for far less.


Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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