One of the most important questions you will have to ask yourself during your college selection process is whether or not your top choice school is affordable for your family.
Affordability has a huge impact on college decisions. Some students will luck out and be offered a nice scholarship by their school that will make things affordable. Others will win independent scholarships. Usually, though, both of these options for financing your education are based on merit, and there is a lot of competition.
But did you know that some schools are committed to making sure all admitted students can afford to attend, regardless of whether they are scholarship recipients?
Read on to see a list of colleges that meet full need, or provide for 100% of their students’ demonstrated financial need.
What Does Demonstrated Financial Need Mean?
Part of the application process is filling out a multitude of forms that colleges use to determine how much your family can reasonably afford to pay.
The two most common forms are the FAFSA (short for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the CSS Profile (short for the College Scholarship Service Profile). Other schools may have their own forms that they ask you to fill out.
On these forms, you’ll have to state your parents’ income and assets, as well as your own (if you have any), and the number of dependents in your household. The government and colleges then run some calculations to decide what’s reasonable for your family to contribute to the cost of your education.
Of course, this plan is not foolproof for getting the money you need for college.
First of all, many families feel that the government and colleges do not do a very good job of determining how much they are able to pay.
The calculations can be different from school to school, and just because an outside arbiter has decided that your family can “afford,” say, $15,000 per year, doesn’t mean that in reality they can. Many families feel they are in a difficult situation because their incomes are too high for the larger pools of financial aid but too low to be comfortable giving up such a large chunk of money. Of course, the situation is even worse for those who are planning on sending multiple kids to college.
Additionally, just because you demonstrate financial need doesn't mean that you will get financial aid—or at least, as much as you need.
Many schools simply cannot afford to give away as much financial aid as their students need. They instead give some money, but not enough to cover the cost.
For example, let’s say your school costs $54,000 per year. You've been told that your family can afford to pay $20,000 per year—but in reality, that’s a stretch. That leaves you $34,000 short of full tuition.
Your school offers to kick in $15,000.
So you are left with a gap of $19,000, plus the $20,000 that you couldn’t really afford in the first place.
This is why so many students are left with no option but to take out extensive private student loans, often leaving them riddled with massive debt for years after graduation.
100% Meet Need Schools
Fortunately, there are some schools out there that are committed to staying affordable for all of their students.
Colleges and universities that pledge to meet 100% of their students’ financial need are a relatively rare breed. There are currently fewer than 75 schools that will meet all of your financial need.
The schools on the lists below make sure that you get the money you need (outside of your family’s calculated contribution, of course) through grants, loans, work study, and scholarships.
Some have taken this generosity one step further and pledged that they will meet the full financial need of their students without requiring them to take out loans.
What Does This Financial Aid Look Like?
For the top schools listed below, financial aid will come 100% in the form of grants, scholarships, and work study.
Grants and scholarships are financial gifts that do not need to be paid back.
Work study means that these schools guarantee you will be given a job that will cover some of your costs.
However, some of the schools listed below will also include loans as part of their financial aid packages.
When a school considers your FAFSA and your aid package, they also determine your eligibility for federal loan programs. These loans need to be repaid, but if they are granted through your school, they count as part of your “100% financial aid program.”
The most common federal loans that you will hear about being part of your financial aid package are as follows:
- Subsidized Stafford Loans: the government pays interest while you are in school and during your grace periods
- Unsubsidized Stafford Loans: you are responsible for the interest that accrues while you are studying
- Federal PLUS Loans: given to the parents of undergraduate students
These loans are usually much better than private student loans because they tend to have lower interest rates, grace periods, convenient repayment plans, and loan forgiveness programs.
However, there are limits to the amount that a student can borrow every year through federal loan programs.
Therefore, some students will additionally be offered loans through their school. Though the rates on these loans are not usually quite as low-interest as federal loans, they tend to have lower interest rates than other private loans.
The other big difference between schools that include loans as part of their 100% need-met financial aid programs and schools that leave a portion of your needs unmet and require you to find your own loans is that you qualify automatically for these loans if they are offered as part of your financial aid package. Receiving the loans is as easy as checking a box on your financial aid statement.
What Kinds of Schools Meet 100% of Need?
As you are looking over the lists below, you might start to notice a pattern. Most of these schools are well known for being excellent in their fields. It’s usually the top schools that are committed to and able to meet 100% of their students’ financial needs.
There are a few reasons for this.
The first is that, traditionally, these schools are attended by wealthier students. When many students are paying full price, and some even have family members making financial donations to the school, these schools will have more money to spread around to students who are not as well-off financially.
Many of these schools also have larger endowments than the average university, which means there is more money to give to students who need it.
Finally, meeting 100% of students’ financial needs has become a selling point for top schools that are competing for top students. Once one school started having this policy, others had to match it to stay competitive and continue being attractive to the best students.
The bottom line is that you can attend a top school and have it be affordable.
The Best of the Best: 100% Need Met Without Loans, Regardless of Income
The following schools have the most generous financial aid packets. They are willing to meet 100% of your demonstrated financial need without making you take out loans, regardless of your family income.
To illustrate what this means, let’s imagine two students going through a fictional financial aid process.
Student A’s parents make $130,000 per year but have a couple of children currently attending college. After looking at their FAFSA, the schools below decide Student A’s parents can make a contribution of $30,000 per year toward average yearly fees of $50,000. Student A would, therefore, get the remaining $20,000 per year in financial aid through scholarships, grants, and work study.
Student B’s parents, on the other hand, make just under $50,000 per year. After looking at their FAFSA, the schools below decide Student B’s family should not have to contribute financially. Student B is awarded the full $50,000 through scholarships, grants, and work study.
All information below is taken from US News. Now, let's look at these crème de la crème schools:
Harvard has one of the best financial aid programs out there.
Second Best: 100% of Need Met With No Loans for Some Incomes
These schools will meet 100% of your financial need no matter what your family’s income is, but if your income is below a certain level, they will also make sure you don't have to take out any loans.
Let’s consider Student A and Student B again to illustrate this.
Student A’s parents can contribute $30,000 per year toward the $50,000 cost of tuition and living. To meet the $20,000 of need, Student A is offered $3,500 in Subsidized Stafford Loans and $2,000 in Unsubsidized Loans, while the parents are offered a PLUS Loan of $2,500. Student A is then offered the final $12,000 through a combination of scholarships, grants, and work study.
Student B’s parents make less than $50,000. Almost all of the schools listed below require no financial contribution from Student B’s parents. Student B is offered the full $50,000 yearly cost through scholarships, grants, and work study.
The following schools are taken from US News. Below are the schools that offer this kind of aid:
Dartmouth is one of the schools that offers loan-free aid to some students.
Aid is loan-free if your parents' total income is less than $60,000 and total assets are less than $100,000.
Aid is loan-free if your parents earn less than $100,000. Your family will not be expected to make any financial contribution.
Aid is loan-free if your parents earn less than $40,000. Your family will not be expected to make any financial contribution.
Aid is loan-free if your parents earn less than $60,000. Families making more than this threshold can expect small loans ranging from $1,500 to $3,000 a year.
Aid is loan-free if your parents earn less than $130,000.
Aid is loan-free for students from "low-income families."
Aid is loan-free if your parents earn less than $75,000.
Aid is loan-free if your calculated family contribution is less than $7,000 and your parents earn less than $60,000. All other students qualifying for financial aid can expect to have a maximum of $15,200 in loans over four years.
Aid is loan-free if parents earn less than $75,000 with "typical assets."
100% of Need With Loans
Though these financial aid packets won’t seem as great compared with the non-loan ones above, the fact that these schools commit to meeting 100% of students’ demonstrated financial need is a rare thing. These schools expect students to take out some loans as part of their financial aid packages but will make sure that there are no gaps between what the aid package is worth and the cost of tuition.
Let’s go back to our fictional students for a moment.
Student A’s parents who earn $130,000 are expected to contribute $30,000 per year toward the $50,000 cost of attendance. Student A is awarded $3,500 in Subsidized Stafford Loans, $2,000 in Unsubsidized Stafford Loans, and a $3,500 loan directly from the school. Student A’s parents are also offered a $7,000 PLUS Loan. Finally, student A gets the opportunity to earn $2,000 per year in work study and receives a grant for $2,000.
By contrast, student B’s parents make less than $50,000 and are not expected to contribute anything up front. Student B is awarded $3,500 in Subsidized Stafford Loans, $2,000 in Unsubsidized Stafford Loans, and a $10,000 loan directly from the school. Student B is also offered $3,500 in work study. Student B’s parents get a PLUS loan of $10,000. The final $21,000 is awarded through grants and scholarships.
Schools who offer students 100% needs met (with loans) financial aid include the following:
USC is one school that meets 100% of financial need with loans.
Bryn Mawr College
California Institute of Technology
Carleton College<Case Western Reserve University
College of the Holy Cross
Colorado CollegeDenison CollegeEmory University (US only)
Franklin & Marshall College
Harvey Mudd College
Johns Hopkins University
Mount Holyoke CollegeNortheastern University (US only)
Scripps CollegeSkidmore College
Thomas Aquinas College
University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill
University of Notre Dame
University of RichmondUniversity of Rochester (does not include Eastman School of Music)
University of Southern California
University of Virginia
Wake Forest University
Final Thoughts: Colleges Offering 100% Aid
The biggest thing that you can take away from this list is the knowledge that top colleges in the US are working hard to be affordable to all students.
If you decide to apply to one of the schools listed above, you can do so with the confidence that you will neither have to come up with the money to finance it up front nor hunt down your own private student loans.
And if you don’t see your top choice on this list, don’t be discouraged. More and more schools are working toward being able to cover 100% of their students’ financial needs.
Many of the schools that aren’t there yet still have great financial aid packages. Even better, many of them offer merit-based scholarships that you might be eligible for.
Also, keep in mind that you should always be on the lookout for outside, private scholarships to help fund your tuition.
The government can sometimes help with tuition costs, especially if you're from a low-income family. Check out our article to see whether you are eligible for a Pell Grant.
Don’t be surprised by the surprise costs of college! Read this article to see what college really costs.
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Mary Ann holds a BA in Classics and Russian from the University of Notre Dame, and an MA from University College London. She has years of tutoring experience and is also passionate about travel and learning languages.