Here are the top 10 colleges for financial aid. Ruling out pricey schools is a ‘tragically flawed’ strategy, says Princeton Review editor

Personal Finance

Cost is now the No. 1 factor when it comes to choosing a college.

As a new application season gets underway, families are increasingly concerned about the rising price of tuition and whether a four-year degree is worth it. 

For the 2021-2022 academic year, annual tuition and fees plus room and board at in-state public institutions averaged $22,690, while at four-year, private universities, it reached $51,690, on average, according to the College Board.

This year, some colleges are hiking tuition as much as 5%, citing inflation and other concerns.

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However, about two-thirds of all full-time students receive aid, which can bring the net price significantly down from official tuition rates. Your net price is a college’s tuition and fees minus grants, scholarships and education tax benefits, according to the College Board.

“The biggest fear for students and parents is assuming too much debt for college,” said Robert Franek, The Princeton Review’s editor-in-chief and author of “The Best 388 Colleges.”

“But crossing an expensive school off of your list early on is tragically flawed,” he said. “So many schools are doing the near impossible, which is not making a student or their family mortgage their future to pay for college.”

To that end, The Princeton Review ranked colleges by how much financial aid is awarded and how satisfied students are with their packages. The Princeton Review’s “Best Colleges for 2023” report is based on data collected from 160,000 student surveys.

The top schools for financial aid are all private and have sky-high sticker prices, including tuition, fees, room and board, yet their very generous aid packages bring the net price significantly down.

When it comes to offering aid, private institutions typically have more money to spend, Franek said.

“These schools are acknowledging ‘yes, college is expensive but we are going to make it as affordable as possible,'” Franek said. It could even end up being less expensive than your local public college, he added.

Among the top 25 schools on the list, the average need-based scholarship awarded to undergrads at the private schools is $47,527.

Top 10 college for financial aid

Here are the colleges that made The Princeton Review’s top 10:

10. College of the Atlantic

College of the Atlantic
Source: College of the Atlantic

Location: Bar Harbor, Maine
Sticker price: $54,576
Average need-based scholarship: $36,223
Total out-of-pocket cost: $18,353

More than 80% of COA students receive some form of financial aid through merit-based and need-based scholarships and up to $1,800 in additional support for experiential, travel-related learning. 

9. Skidmore College

Skidmore College
Tai | Flickr CC

Location: Saratoga Springs, New York
Sticker price: $76,220
Average need-based scholarship: $47,992
Total out-of-pocket cost: $28,228

Skidmore stands out because it meets 100% of demonstrated need for all students and the average package is close to $50,000.

8. Grinnell College

Younker Hall on the campus of Grinnell College.
Wolterk | Getty Images

Location: Grinnell, Iowa
Sticker price: $76,528
Average need-based scholarship: $52,847
Total out-of-pocket cost: $23,681

This private liberal arts college is committed to meeting 100% of demonstrated need without loans so graduates have zero debt. Now, 89% of students receive aid to help pay for their years at Grinnell.

7. Thomas Aquinas College

Thomas Aquinas College
Source: Thomas Aquinas College

Location: Santa Paula, California
Sticker price: $36,990
Average need-based scholarship: $13,326
Total out-of-pocket cost: $23,574

This very small Catholic school outside of Los Angeles aims to fund 100% of demonstrated need for all students with help from contributions from individuals and charitable foundations.

6. Rice University

Rice University
Craig Hartley | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Location: Houston
Sticker price: $67,695
Average need-based scholarship: $53,221
Total out-of-pocket cost: $14,474

This private research university in Texas’ largest city was originally founded as a tuition-free institution, and it remains committed to affordability. Students with family incomes below $75,000 now receive grant aid covering not only full tuition but also fees and room and board. Students with family incomes between $75,000 and $140,000 receive full-tuition scholarships and those with family incomes between $140,000 and $200,000 get scholarships covering at least half of their tuition, according to the school.

5. Bowdoin College

Joshua Chamberlain statue at the entrance to the Bowdoin campus in Brunswick, Maine.
Gregory Rec | Portland Press Herald | Getty Images

Location: Brunswick, Maine
Sticker price: $74,220
Average need-based scholarship: $55,010
Total out-of-pocket cost: $19,210

This small liberal arts school on the coast of Maine stopped using loans in their financial aid packages over a decade ago, replacing them with grants instead. Now, nearly half of the student body receives grant assistance from the college.

4. California Institute of Technology

California Institute of Technology (Caltech) signage stands on campus in Pasadena, California,
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Location: Pasadena, California
Sticker price: $71,244
Average need-based scholarship: $49,806
Total out-of-pocket cost: $21,438

Most of financial aid awarded to Caltech undergraduates comes from grants, which are need-based, so they don’t have to be earned or repaid.    

3. Washington University in St. Louis

Brookings Hall at Washington University in St. Louis.
Stephen Ehlers | Getty Images

Location: St. Louis
Sticker price: $79,060
Average need-based scholarship: $54,663
Total out-of-pocket cost: $24,397

At first glance, Wash U. is one of the pricier schools on The Princeton Review list. However, this Missouri school is similarly committed to meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need.

2. Williams College

Williams College
Barry Winiker | Getty Images

Location: Williamstown, Massachusetts
Sticker price: $77,300
Average need-based scholarship: $51,521
Total out-of-pocket cost: $25,779

This fall, Williams is eliminating loans, as well as campus and summer jobs from its financial aid packages. The school also guarantees free textbooks, health insurance and even optional funding to study abroad.

1. Vanderbilt University

Vanderbilt University
Vanderbilt | Collegiate Images | Getty Images

Location: Nashville, Tennessee
Sticker price: $68,980
Average need-based scholarship: $52,242
Total out-of-pocket cost: $16,738

Vanderbilt’s commitment to avoiding loans means that the university has pledged to meet 100% of demonstrated need with grant assistance and reasonable work study requirements.

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