Top 10 Colleges with the Best Financial Aid Offerings
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cost-of-college-300x200If you’re applying to college this year, there’s a good chance you’ve started occasionally waking up at night in a state of panic wondering how on earth you’re going to actually pay for your education.

This reaction to the college application process is totally normal. After all, if you took the cost of college tuition and put that much money in a savings account every year, you’d probably have enough set aside to buy yourself a small island at the end of four years. College sticker prices these days range from the moderately concerning to the truly obscene.

Fortunately, many colleges don’t actually expect you to be able to pay the sticker price, and some colleges will only ask you to pay a fraction of the total tuition cost if you demonstrate sufficient need. To help you narrow down the colleges most likely to help you foot the bill, here’s a list of 10 of the colleges with the best financial aid offerings, taking into account average tuition paid per student, average debt among students receiving federal loans and future earning prospects.

  1. Stanford University

Stanford has always had competitive financial aid offerings, but in 2015 the Palo Alto school announced a move to drop tuition fees for students with family incomes up to $125,000 as well as room and board for students with family incomes below $65,000.

Students in the $65,000 – $125,000 will still be on the hook for at least part of room and board, but with graduates earning $80,000 on average, the investment will more than pay off in the long run.

  1. Princeton University

Princeton is a rare beast – a school where most students only need four digits to write down how much they’re paying. According to the Department of Education’s College Scorecard, Princeton students pay just $8,413 on average and graduate owing only $6,810 when they take out federal loans – which is only 5% of the time.

With a median income of $75,100 10 years after graduation, they generally don’t have a tough time repaying their mostly non-existent student loans. 

  1. Harvard University

At more than $32 billion, Harvard’s endowment dwarfs the GDPs of many of the world’s countries. Little wonder, then, that it offers some of the best financial aid packages among US universities.

Harvard students pay $14,000 on average, with over 20% of students not paying a dime. As a result, only 3% of students take out federal loans – and even those 3% graduate with only $6,000 in loan debt on average.

But despite the low cost of attendance, it’ll come as no shock that a Harvard education is a valuable thing to have, with the typical grad making $87,200.

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

With an average annual cost of $21,816, MIT fairs slightly worse than other similarly prestigious schools. 20% of its students opt for federal student loans, graduating with a typical debt of $13,645.

That said, once they graduate they absolutely rake it in. Your run-of-the-mill MITer can be found taking home $91,600 a year 10 years after graduation.

  1. Yale University

At first glance, Yale’s 2015-2016 cost of attendance of $65,725 might give you that sinking feeling in your chest, but it turns out the average Yale student only has to fork over $16,743. Moreover, over 10% of Yale students won’t have to pay anything this year. 10% of Yale students rely on federal loans, and these students typically leave with $12,000 total debt.

Of course, Yale grads leave not just with low debt but also with bright futures – they can look forward to making $66,000 on average, which is pretty good. OK, it’s not Harvard good, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

  1. Amherst College

One of the most selective liberal arts colleges in the country, Amherst boasts a personalized educational experience with an extremely flexible curriculum that includes no distribution requirements. It also offers financial aid to over 60% of its students and is the only liberal arts college to have need-blind admissions for both domestic and international applicants.

A typical Amherst student pays $19,449 a year and ends up with an annual salary of $56,800 10 years after graduating. 13% of Amherst students take out federal loans with an average debt of $11,186 per student.

  1. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 

UNC is one of only two public universities that pledges to meet 100% of demonstrated financial need for admitted undergraduate applicants. It also offers several kinds of merit scholarships. About half of UNC students receive financial aid, with the average financial aid package at around $18,000.

Even though UNC is committed to meeting all demonstrated financial need, loans are considered one way off meeting this need, so about a third of all students take out federal loans. These students graduate with $15,609 in debt on average and can be found making a cool $50,400 a decade later.

  1. University of Virginia

Besides UNC, University of Virginia is the other public university that claims to meet 100% of demonstrated need as a rule. With its combination of strong academics and commitment to providing financial assistance, the school regularly appears near the top of various “best value colleges” lists.

24% of Virginia students help fund their education with federal student loads, and the typical Virginia student loan recipient finishes school with a $19,500 debt. On the other hand, your average Virginia grad is making $58,600 10 years after graduating, which helps explain why 95% of Virginia students are paying down their debt within three years of graduation, compared with just 67% of students nationally.

  1. Berea College

Berea is a liberal arts college located near Lexington, Kentucky. As a work college, Berea requires that each student work at least 10 hours a week in exchange for a small wage, a full tuition scholarship and a laptop. Possible jobs include everything from doing arts and crafts to helping with building maintenance to being a teaching assistant.

Perhaps as a result of its intimate academic environment, unique work study program and exceptional financial aid, Berea is third only to Harvard and Stanford in the percentage of admitted students who decide to enroll. Washington Monthly, which emphasizes social mobility in its college rankings, put Berea third on its 2015 list of liberal arts colleges.

Thanks to its tuition-free policy, the average annual cost of attending Berea is a mere $1,776. 23% of students take out federal loans, and those students don cap and gown carrying a typical debt of $5,750. The average Berea grad makes $34,400 10 years out.

  1. College of the Ozarks

Like Berea, College of the Ozarks is a liberal arts college with a mandatory work study program that covers the full cost of tuition. With students working 15 hours a week and putting in two 40-hour weeks when classes are out as well as optionally working summers to cover tuition, it’s no wonder this Missouri school calls itself “Hard Work U.”

Since tuition is free and all students can work summers to cover room and board (scholarships are also available for some students demonstrating need), College of the Ozarks doesn’t participate in federal student loan programs. All told, the average yearly cost of attendance is $11,491 and a typical Ozarks alum is earning $31,700 a decade after graduating.

If you don’t want your diploma to come with a receipt that makes your jaw drop stapled to the back of it, keep these schools in mind as you’re narrowing down your options. For more information on the different financial aid offerings out there, check out the Department of Education’s recently released College Scorecard and U.S. News & World Report’s latest list of colleges claiming to meet all demonstrated financial need.

By Niels V.