Financial Hack: The New Paradigm for College Admissions List Building

Safety, Target, and Reach College Lists are Dead

A couple of decades ago, building a college list based on your chances of admission—safety, target, reach—was a smart strategy. College costs weren’t as high as they are today and more students were vying for fewer spots. Fast forward 20+ years, students have over 5,000 colleges to choose from and no one (except the very wealthy) can comfortably afford to pay for college.

The Heartbreak of Admission Without Affordability

Getting accepted without the ability to afford a college can be devastating. Price tags can easily run $40k-$80K/year for many schools. Students and their families often feel pressured to take out costly and burdensome loans to pay for college. It’s surprising that many counselors and professionals still urge students to prioritize admissions likelihood to build their lists. This strategy does nothing to address cost—the biggest stumbling block to a college education families face today.

How Much Does College Really Cost?

Colleges don’t make it easy for families to find out how much they’re on the hook for paying. In fact, most families don’t know exactly how much a college costs until they get their acceptance letter. Colleges publish their cost of attendance (COA) and then routinely tell families that ‘no one pays sticker price.’ In fact, every family pays a different amount for the same college. Using the net price calculator (NPC) on a college’s website results in an equally fuzzy number since every college has a different NPC calculation. Families concerned about paying for college must figure out two things before their students actually start applying: 

Arm Yourself with Financial Fitness Data

Since college can cost as much as a house these days, it’s time for a new admissions paradigm that prioritizes affordability and financial fit over admissions likelihood. Colleges don’t make it easy for families to find their personal cost of attendance, but a combination of two online tools, MeritMore and TuitionFit, can help families find colleges in their price range.

Use MeritMore to conduct a personalized merit aid search. Find a list of generous merit aid (non-need-based aid) colleges—schools most likely to give you money to attend based on your stats. Choose schools you’re interested in from this list.

Then, head over to TuitionFit to find verified financial aid offer data that students with similar academic profiles received from these schools. Once you have this information, you can add colleges that are affordable for your family to the college list.

Balance Your List for Financial Fitness

Building a college list that prioritizes affordability over acceptance saves families money, time, and heartbreak. Families should designate a financial fit score to each school—painful, stretch, or affordable.

Use this free College Admissions Spreadsheet to track your list and stay on top of both your affordability and acceptance likelihood balance. Make sure that at least 80% of the colleges on your list make financial sense. Families and students taking on outsized college loans that may take decades to pay off can become a thing of the past.


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