Upside Down College Search – Finding Your Deals

Published by Wendy Nelson on

Deal Finding your deals is the point in the Upside Down College Search process where you determine colleges that are likely to meet the criteria you have defined and will be a good deal for your family.  Over the past several weeks, I have covered the steps to defining your criteria:

  1. What Can Your Family Afford for College?
  2. What’s Your Student’s Merit Hook?
  3. What Does Your Student “Need” in a College?

With the results you came up with in these three areas, you can determine likely colleges and potential deals. (If you don’t know these results yet, I recommend visiting the links above to read these posts, calculate what you can afford, think about your student’s merit hook(s), and talk with your student to determine his or her college “needs”.)

For finding your deals, we will start with 2 things – what your family can afford and what your student needs in a college.

Last week, I took a slight detour from walking through the Upside Down College Search process to go into details on the EFC in Let’s Talk About Expected Family Contribution. Now, you will compare your EFC against the Average Net Price of potential colleges to determine which schools are likely to be affordable for your family.

So that you aren’t looking at every college in the country in this process, you will use the criteria your student needs/wants in a school in order to search for a list of potential matches (keep in mind that your family will have more options if your student focuses on “needs” instead of “wants”).

How Do You Find Schools That Are Affordable?

You need to find schools where the Average Net Price is at or lower than your EFC. This will be easier if your EFC is higher.  For example, if your EFC is $35,000, it is going to be much easier to find schools where you will actually pay less than that out of pocket than if you start with a $16,000 EFC.

Just keep in mind that it is an “average” Net Price, so your family could pay more or less depending on individual circumstances.

Searching for schools that will be in the right Average Net Price range is not an easy task! Here is what I recommend:

  1. Use the government’s College Navigator search site (you need a site that lists average net price and this is the best one I have found)
  2. Enter search options based on your student’s needs/wants that I talked about in the second installment of the Upside Down College Search series (click on “More Search Options” on the College Navigator search panel to enter criteria).
  3. Export the search results to Microsoft Excel (there is an “Export Results” option at the top of the page in College Navigator and you can choose to export to Excel or CSV)
  4. There is a Net Price column in the search results.  I recommend sorting the results by the Net Price field so you can see the schools from low to high net price order.
  5. For any schools on the list you are interested in, run a Net Price Calculator to get an estimation of net price for your family. (On the College Navigator search results page for each individual school, there is a Net Price section an in that section, there is a link to the school’s Net Price Calculator. Otherwise you can go directly to the school’s website and search for the calculator there, but sometimes they are hard to find.) Note: Some Net Price Calculators include merit-based aid and some do not.
  6. I recommend having your student spend some time exploring each college’s website (sections for Academics, Student Life, Admissions info, etc.) to get a feel for the school and see if it initially sounds like a good fit.
  7. For all the schools that still sound affordable to you and interesting to your student, investigate more specifics around need-based aid (if you qualify) and merit-based aid. You need to determine how likely your student will be to actually get a good merit aid offer.
    • Find schools where your student’s ACT or SAT score is above the school’s mid-50% range (on College Navigator, look at the Admissions section for the school and scroll down to the Test Scores section – look for schools where your student’s scores are above the 75th Percentile score shown)
    • Secondarily, find schools where your student’s GPA is above the school’s mid-50% range (College Navigator does not include this information, but includes average GPA )
    • Look at the overall percentage of students receiving merit-based aid (College Navigator does not separate out need-based and merit-based grants and scholarships. You can go to, look in the Money Matters section for a school, and find the percentage of students receiving Merit-Based Gift Aid and also the percentage of students with No Need receiving merit-based gift aid.)
    • Look up the specifics on actual merit scholarships offered by the school (You can usually find merit scholarship details on the school’s website under a Scholarships page – the Scholarships page is usually under Financial Aid or Admissions)
  8. I recommend also searching lists of large merit scholarships to make sure you didn’t overlook any schools where your student might qualify for scholarships up to Full Tuition or even a Full Ride.  My Full Scholarship List is the most complete and most updated listing of Full-Tuition and Full-Ride Scholarships available across the U.S.

These are the steps to finding your deals on a college education. There is no “magic pill” for getting a good deal.

You need to follow a systematic process that involves searching only for schools that may be affordable, excluding all schools not likely to be affordable for your family.

Then you look at the likelihood of your student being offered merit-based aid by these schools.

And finally, you compliment that by searching for actual high-dollar merit scholarships that your student would qualify for (or qualify to apply for) offered by colleges around the U.S.



1 Comment

How to choose a college or university - free resources | High School, College, Success! · August 8, 2017 at 11:32 am

[…] Upside Down College Search – Finding Your Deals – Don’t waste time finding the perfect college only to realize you can’t afford it. […]

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