Paying For College in Tough Times

These are scary times for parents of teenagers. Saving for college was challenging enough before experts started comparing the stock market’s current implosion to the Great Depression.

Many parents are reacting to the downturn by telling their teenagers to only apply to instate schools to save money.

In some cases this is a wise decision, but public universities won’t always be the cheapest alternative especially if you throw room and board charges on top of what seems like a reasonable tuition. One factor that parents often overlook is the four-year graduation rates of public schools that are shockingly low. Nationally the four-year grad rate for state schools is 28%.

To find the best academic and financial fits, families should widen their searches not narrow them.  While this will seem counterintuitive, for some students private schools will be a cheaper alternative.

In contrast to state universities, private schools have much more institutional money to give to families whether or not they qualify for need-based aid. An excellent resource for families looking for assistance not linked to need-based aid is a new website called MeritAid.com.

MeritAid.com contains a database of merit awards for 1,800 schools. Besides listing the scholarships at each of these schools, the site will  tell you what percentage of a school’s students receive some type of assistance. At Harvard, for instance, 52% of students get help compared to 99% at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, which is one of the  schools that my son, a high school junior, is interested in visiting.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution.

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