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 is not affordable?
That’s why every single student should have a safety school or two that offers good financial aid to them. These colleges will be affordable, but should also be institutions that a student is excited to attend and 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 is in a rural location. Your financial safety should be a place where you’ll be happy and can accomplish your goals.
The tricky part of this is that you won’t receive your official financial aid award letter until after you are admitted. Luckily, we’ll be discussing some of the ways that you can predict financial aid and scholarships before you receive your decision!
Jump ahead to:
- What is a safety school?
- Choosing a safety school
- Need-based financial safety schools
- Merit-based financial safety schools
- In-state public schools
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 credentials exceed the college’s average credentials for first year freshman students.
Choosing a safety school
According to research from the National Association for College Admission Counseling the top two factors for admissions decisions are the high school transcript (grades and classes) and test scores. This means that grades and test scores are the two factors that you should be using to assess your admissions chances.
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
Now we have covered what a safety or likely school is. Let’s talk about how to find a financial safety school.
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.
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. 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
- 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. Speaking of merit aid…
Merit-based financial safety schools
If you have completed the Net Price Calculator and know that you will receive very little or no need-based financial aid, you will probably want to check out merit scholarship options. As we mentioned above, the NPC is still worth using, because some colleges will estimate merit scholarships.
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.
In-state public schools
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: see tuition consortiums).
These schools also run the scope of selectivity, so there should be something for every student. From the “Public Ivies” like University of Virginia and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 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.
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.
Key next steps for students
- 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.