How to Get into an Elite Private College… for Less Than a State School

$36,993. That’s the average one-year cost to send a child to a private college this past year.

$56,750. That’s what it costs for one year at Harvard.
$55,690. One year at Duke.
$58,498. One year at George Washington.

If you have a spare $200,000 or more lying around for each of your kids, this report may not be for you.

However, if your college savings are low, but you still have a strong desire to send your child to an elite private college, this might be the most important report you read all year.

Here’s what I mean by that…

The latest U.S. News and World Report top college rankings paint a pretty clear picture:

Private colleges rule the roost.

In fact, more than 80% of the top 100 colleges on this list are private colleges (with the remainder of this list coming from state-run universities.)

Why do private colleges consistently rank higher than state run universities?

  1. Private colleges typically offer much smaller class sizes and more individual attention. A smaller student to professor ratio means more focus on each individual student’s needs. A smaller classroom is a more intimate setting, which allows students to feel more comfortable speaking up or asking questions during discussions and lectures. Plus, professors are more likely to be readily available to their students… often maintaining an open-door policy at their offices.
  2. The average four-year graduation rate is almost double what the average state school is:  49% versus an astonishingly low 27% for state colleges.
  3. Private colleges tend to have higher standards for acceptance, along with a higher standard of conduct than most public colleges.  This amounts to skimming the cream off the top of each year’s high school graduates.
  4. Private colleges tend to focus on fewer areas. This allows specialization that produces a higher caliber of graduate in those fields.
  5. Public colleges have a duty to serve the interests of the general public, not necessarily any one individual student.
  6. Private colleges typically have bigger endowments, which can be used to attract better professors and faculty.

Keep in mind, the focus of this report is not to downgrade public colleges. In many situations, a public college can give a child a great education for a good price.

But for those parents who want extra advantages for their kids, a private college education may be the answer.

Average Private College Costs Versus State-Run Universities

In its most recent survey of college pricing, the College Board reports that a “moderate” college budget for an in-state public college for the 2010-2011 academic year averaged $20,339.  A moderate budget at a private college averaged $40,476.

(A college budget or sticker price includes both tuition, fees, housing, meals, books, supplies, plus personal and transportation expenses.)

That’s nearly twice the cost to send your child to a private college.

KEY POINT: What the sticker price is for a college is not necessarily what a family paysfor college.

Sticker price is the price a college quotes for all students before factoring in any scholarships, grants, or zero interest loans.

If you take one thing from this report, it is this exact point…

There can be a huge difference between the sticker price and what a parent actually pays for college.

We talked earlier about several of the biggest advantages private colleges have over state school. But perhaps the biggest advantage is that private colleges typically give out a much higher amount of free gift-aid than state schools.

(Gift aid is typically what brings down the sticker price of a private college… So much so, that a higher sticker priced college can often times end up costing less than a state university.)

So, what determines if a family gets free gift-aid?

It is determined by something called the “financial aid formula.”

Here’s how the financial aid formula breaks down…

C.O.A (Cost of Attendance)
– E.F.C. (Expected Family Contribution)
= F. N. (Family Need)

Or, put another way…

Cost of Attendance (C.O.A. – also called the “sticker price” or “college budget”)

minus the Expected Family Contribution (E.F.C. – this is the number the Department of Education or the College Profile determines your family can afford to pay for college each year. It’s mostly based on the parents’ and students’ income and family assets.) This calculation determines the Family Need (how much aid your family is eligible for.)

Let’s look at a real-life case example, so you can see this in action.

Example:  “The Jones Family” (Real names have been changed to protect identity)

Widener University (Private college in Chester, PA)

$50,221 (Cost of Attendance)
– 14,921  (Expected Family Contribution)
= 35,300 (Family Need)

Based on this formula, Widener’s Financial Aid Department came back with the following total aid award package…

$17,000 Presidential Scholarship
$10,700 Widener Grant-in-aid
$3,500 Direct Federal Subsidized-loan
$2,000 Direct Federal Unsubsidized-loan
$1,100 Federal Work-Study
$1,000 Federal Perkins Loan
$35,300 Total Aid Awarded

This award package shows us that Widener met 100% of the Jones Families financial need.  And they did so with more than 78% in free gift-aid.

So instead of paying the sticker price of $50,221, the Joneses are only going to pay $14,921 per year out-of-pocket to send their child to Widener.

Now let’s compare this with what they were awarded at a state college…

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor (State School)

$24,167 (Cost of attendance for in-state students)
$14,921 (Expected Family Contribution)
= $9,246 (Family Need)

$600 Michigan Competitive Scholarship
$1,000 Private Scholarship
$3,500 Direct Federal Subsidized-loan
= $5,100 Total Aid Awarded

This brings the cost of University of Michigan-Ann Arbor to $19,067 per year out-of-pocket.

This is a textbook example of how a high-priced, elite private college actually costs less than an in-state public university.

We’ve seen thousands of examples just like this over the years.

Keep this idea in mind as you move forward with your family’s college planning process.

Remember, don’t rule out an elite private school just based on the sticker price. There is a good chance you won’t pay anywhere near that price.  And you could end up paying far less than you would at an in-state public college. Read Negotiate a Better College Financial Aid Package to pay less for college tuition.

To your college admissions & funding success,

Scott Weingold

Related Articles:

*Click here for more actionable tips on how to pay for college.

Return to College Made Simple's Free Reports

Find us on Facebook! Find us on Facebook!

Increase Your SAT Scores Learn How to Increase the SAT Score... By 203 Point or More
Just tell us where to send the full report...
We'll also send you - at no charge - the College Funding Made Simple e-Course, delivered to your email inbox in 12 parts, by topic. With each part, you'll come away with valuable, actionable insights proven to help parents and students in the college admissions and funding process.

NO-SPAM PLEDGE: We believe that your personal information should stay that way. Rest assured, your email address is 100% confidential, and under no circumstance will we ever rent, sell or give away your email address outside of our own network without you specifically requesting us to do so.

Leave a comment
Your comment

Editor's Note: Scott Weingold has been ranked the #1 “College Financial Aid Expert Worth Knowing About” in the entire country by  He has co-authored the book, “The Real Secret To Paying For College. The Insider’s Guide To Sending Your Child To College – Without Spending Your Life’s Savings.” Scott also publishes a popular free online newsletter, “College Funding Made Simple" which reveals insider’s tips, methods, and strategies for beating the high cost of college.

Scott is the co-founder and a principal of the widely renown College Planning Network, LLC – the nation’s largest and most reputable college admissions and financial aid planning firm. CPN is a proud member of the Better Business Bureau, the National Association of College Funding Advisors, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

Scott, along with his college funding advisory team, helps thousands of families throughout the country with their college planning needs and offers a series of free educational webinars and workshops on “How To Pay For College Without Going Broke In The Process!” He's been featured or mentioned in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Yahoo News,, Voice America with Ron Adams, Crains Cleveland Business, and on Cleveland Connection with James McIntyre.  Scott has published numerous articles and is a professional speaker who has addressed thousands of audiences online and offline throughout the United States.  His actionable insights and candid, open approach have earned him & his team numerous media interviews, citations, and speaking opportunities, and his free online video workshop is one of the Internet’s most widely viewed pieces in the college funding space.