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Finding a Financial Safety School

When you start putting together your college list, safety schools are usually an after-thought. Safeties are a just-in-case, a backup, something you (probably) won’t need. 

However, finding a best-fit safety school, especially one with strong financial aid, is one of the most important decisions that you will make as a student. After all, what’s the point in having a safety school if it’s not affordable?

The tricky part of this is that you won’t receive your official financial aid award letter until after you’re admitted. Luckily, we’ll be discussing some of the ways that you can predict financial aid and scholarships before you receive your decision!

Don’t miss: Scholarships360 scholarship search tool

What is a safety school?

First things first, what is a safety school? As a former high school college counselor, I have never been a fan of the term safety school. 

Instead, I think of these types of schools as “likely” or “predictable.” These are colleges that you have a very good shot at being admitted to because your academic achievements and credits exceed the college’s average for first year freshman students.

Also see: What are safety, reach, and match schools?

Choosing a safety school

Two of the most important factors for college admission are grades and test scores, so you should use them to assess your admissions chances. Try asking your admissions counselor what percentile your grades and scores fall under for your chosen schools. 

Until then, you can also try other approaches as well. As a very general rule of thumb, you should be looking for the following in a safety or likely school:

  • Colleges that accept more students than they deny (acceptance rates > 50%)
  • College and universities where your GPA and test scores are above the upper 75% 

Admissions scattergrams can be a great tool to figure out your admissions chances. Of course, this is also an area where your high school counselor may be able to help and provide suggestions. 

Choosing a financial safety

Every single student should have a safety school or two that offers good financial aid. These colleges will be affordable, but should also be institutions that a student is excited to attend and that fit their desired academic, community, and other criteria. 


For instance, if you are intent on going to college in a big city, it will not be useful to have a financial safety school that’s in a rural location. Your financial safety should be a place where you’ll be happy and can accomplish your goals.

For the sake of simplicity, I am going to break this down into two separate situations: students who are interested in need-based aid and merit-based aid.  Most students are going to fall somewhere on the spectrum between these two situations, but the lessons are applicable.

Related: Need-based vs Merit-based Aid

Need-based financial safety schools

On the need-based side, your best friend is going to be the Net Price Calculator (NPC).  This tool is on the website of every college and university and helps determine how much a school will cost after need-based aid is given out. If you have any trouble finding the NPC on a specific school’s website, get in touch with their financial aid department.

Some of the things that the NPC takes into account include:

  • Household income
  • Savings
  • Mortgage
  • Number of family members in college

In addition to need-based financial aid, some Net Price Calculators may also include questions about your grades and testing so that the college can estimate merit scholarships too! This is not going to be the case at every college.

See also: How to complete the FAFSA

Merit-based financial safety schools

As we mentioned above, the NPC is still worth using because some colleges will estimate merit scholarships. Especially if you have limited need-based aid options for college.

First things first, you will want to start with colleges that offer merit-based scholarships to a high percentage of students. Next, you can go through the process of analyzing your admissions chances via scattergrams to see where your academic credentials fall in the context of the applicant pool. 

Don’t miss: How many colleges should I apply to?

In-state public colleges and universities

I suppose I could have started with this, but there is a trick to this whole lesson.  Every student in the United States of America (sorry again, international folks) has a financial safety school, literally right in their own backyard.

In-state public schools exist to support the residents of the state where they are located. This means that they offer low and affordable rates of tuition for in-state students (and select out-of-state students).

These schools also run the scope of selectivity, so there should be something for every student. From the “Public Ivies” to schools with open admissions policies, there is something for everyone’s version of a safety school.

In-state tuition for non-residents

If you are interested in public colleges that are out-of-state, you may be in luck! There are several ways to get in-state tuition as an out-of-state student including tuition exchanges and specific non-resident scholarships.

Two-year colleges

Another option is taking a hard look at public two-year colleges in your state.  This can be a great option for improving students who may not be competitive for much merit-based aid.  Many two-year colleges have agreements with four-year institutions for transferring.

Some states even have programs that pay your tuition to the two-year college!

One of these programs is New Jersey’s NJ STARS Program.  New Jersey high school students in the top 15% of their class can attend any NJ two-year college for free.  Students who transfer to one of the partner schools, including Rutgers University, Stevens Institute of Technology, and The College of New Jersey, will receive a renewable $2,500 scholarship.

Next Steps

Next Steps

  • Have an honest conversation with your family about affordability and cost in your college search
  • Complete the Net Price Calculator for every college on your list
  • Apply to at least two financial safety schools on your college list (where you are likely to get merit scholarships or need-based financial aid)
  • Strongly consider applying to at least one of your in-state public colleges or universities. They will offer discounted tuition rates for state residents
Next Steps

Frequently asked questions about finding a financial safety school

Good question! A safety school is any school that you have a high likelihood of gaining acceptance to. This can mean the school has a high acceptance rate or that you’re meeting or exceeding that particular school’s average GPA and test scores.

Not necessarily. A safety school is almost a guaranteed acceptance, which means you should apply early decision to your #1 school instead. Therefore, it’s better for you to apply regular decision for a safety school.

Considering that a safety school means ensuring you have a high chance of getting in, there are certain acceptance rates you should look for. Ideally, you should have a 70% or higher chance of being accepted, which isn’t the same as the school’s listed acceptance rate though that’s also a factor. You can figure this out by talking with your counselor or doing research about the standardized test scores of the previous class to see where you rank.