How a “financial safety school” can save you thousands in tuition

By Anathea Simpkins

financial aid safety

In 2015, the average cost of one year of college tuition and fees was approximately $32,405 for private schools and $9,410 for in-state public schools, according to The College Board. The prospect of paying for four years of college at these rates may seem intimidating, but high school seniors can dramatically increase their odds of getting big scholarships if they take just one extra step this fall: apply to a few “financial aid safety schools,” college admissions experts say.

Students have long known that they should apply to a few “safety schools” to make sure they get into at least one college. But now that college has become so expensive, many students also need to include some schools that are likely to award them lots of financial aid.

According to Mark Montgomery, a private admissions counselor in Denver, if students add just two or three financial aid safety schools to their application list this fall, they can potentially slash their net tuition costs by tens of thousands of dollars a year.

In addition, he adds, students who end up going to a financial safety school are in a position to receive a superior education. This is because they are generally among the most qualified students on their campuses. These students can be superstars who receive lots of extra attention and support from faculty who are excited to teach top students, he says.

Here are five things experts like Montgomery say every high school student and parent should know about financial aid safety schools:

What are they?

Financial aid safety schools are “ ‘uber safeties’ where your credentials are so vastly superior to that of average applicant” that the school will be likely to try to recruit you with a large scholarship, says Steven Goodman, a private college admissions counselor in Washington, DC. Generally, the schools most likely to use aid to recruit above-average students are private colleges with large merit-aid budgets. But Goodman says that many public universities, especially in the South and Midwest, are also recruiting high-achieving out-of-staters with big scholarships. The University of Alabama, for example, offers full-tuition scholarships to out-of-staters with at least 1400 on their SATs and a GPA of at least 3.5. Wayne State University in Michigan offers $9,000 a year plus two years’ of a free dorm room to students with an ACT of at least 21 and a GPA of at least 3.2

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How do you find them?

You can screen for good value colleges where the average SAT scores are at least 100 points below yours using the Find Your Fit tool in the MONEY College Planner. Premium subscribers can also screen for colleges more likely to award generous merit or need-based grants. Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of The College Solution, suggests students check out sources such as the College Board and for detailed breakdowns of the GPAs and test scores of students at each college, as well as the specifics of the school’s aid budget, such as the size and type institutional scholarships it offers.

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How many?

Students who want to maximize their chances of getting a big aid package need to apply to at least two financial safety schools, says Montgomery.

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Students who apply to a college through a binding early decision program have no chance to get other offers or negotiate for better aid packages, notes Montgomery. So those hoping for big aid packages should only apply through non-binding early action or later, regular applications. If you’re looking for big scholarships, “you can’t fall in love with just one college,” Montgomery says.

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What’s the downside?

If you’re such an attractive candidate that a college wants to lure you with big scholarships, then the typical student on campus may be less academically talented and dedicated than you. Those students can have a surprising impact on your life, since research shows that peers affect how much or how hard undergraduates study, and even their odds of dropping out. So if you’re somebody who needs the competition and camaraderie of high-achieving peers to excel, a financial safety school may be a penny-wise, but pound-foolish choice. The bottom line is, “You have to ask yourself: How much debt are you willing to trade for having a superior peer group? That’s a tough question” that each student and family has to face, Montgomery says.


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