On the hunt for the most generous colleges

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Nov 3, 2017

If scholarships and financial aid are an important part of your payment plan for college, as it is for most families, you may do well to consider a few schools with deep pockets.

Indeed, some schools are more generous than others.

“Some have enough financial resources available in institutional aid that they can actually commit to meeting all of their student’s full financial need, while other schools don’t have the same financial security,” said Karen McCarthy, director of policy analysis for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

North Greenville University, for example, a Southern Baptist liberal arts school in Tigerville, South Carolina, awards grants or scholarships to 100 percent of incoming freshman, according to the net price calculator on its website. That brings the average undergraduate tuition price for freshman to $19,104 in 2016.1

And Harvard College famously pays all costs for students and families that have a total income that’s less than $65,000. Indeed, 20 percent of its students pay nothing at all.2

A generous financial aid package is helpful to all college-bound students, of course, but it’s critical to making college affordable for many. (Related: A Primer on College Financial Aid )

Results from the latest MassMutual College Savings Study, released in early 2017, found 46 percent of families view college-sponsored scholarships as one of their top strategies for paying for college. Some 41 percent also indicated they would take advantage of federal student aid programs, such as Pell Grants, for undergraduate students with financial need.

The MassMutual study, which allowed respondents to select more than one answer, found 34 percent of families also indicated they would help pay for college out of their own savings, and another 34 percent said their child would work part time.

Scholarships, grants, and other free money

Tuition assistance comes in many forms.

Some higher learning institutions, including most of the Ivy League schools, only offer grants and scholarships to students who demonstrate financial need.

Others offer a proportionately higher number of performance awards, or merit-based aid, to attract top talent, targeting athletes, musicians, scholars, and those who contribute to their communities.

Similarly, some collegiate scholarships are tied to a field of study and funded by private companies or organizations looking to cultivate the next generation of young professionals.

A number of organizations and news outlets have simplified the process of ferreting out the schools with the deepest pockets, culling together lists of colleges and universities that meet their stated criteria.

U.S. News & World Report, for example, lists the colleges that awarded the most institutional scholarships or grant aid to students who did not have financial need.

Apart from North Greenville University, Cooper Union in New York, New York, Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, and the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts made the grade -- each offering non-need based aid to roughly half of its students.

BestColleges, an online college directory, publishes a roster of 50 schools that offer the best financial aid packages to cash-strapped students whose family income falls below $48,000 per year. Top on their list are the University of Texas – Pan American in Edinburg, Texas, California State University at Dominguez Hills in Carson, California, the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas, California State University at Los Angeles, and CUNY Lehman College in the Bronx, New York.

And, a 2017 report by Money Magazine identified the schools on its Best College Values list that combine educational quality, affordabilty and alumni success.

The top five? Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, CUNY Bernard M Baruch College in New York, New York, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, the University of California-Berkely in Berkeley, and the University of California-Los Angeles.

Tuition-free schools

Free-tuition policies are the holy grail of financial aid packages, but they are few and far between.

The dozen or so colleges that offer free tuition, including Cooper Union in New York City and College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri, most often still require students to cover the costs of room and board, along with books and incidentals. In some cases, students are also required to work during the academic year to demonstrate commitment.

But that’s, literally, a small price to pay. According to the College Board, tuition, fees and room and board for full-time in-state students averaged $20,090 at public four-year colleges and universities in 2016/17 and $45,370 at private nonprofit four-year schools.(Calculator: How Much Do I Need to Save for College?)

Online financial aid information site FinAid notes that many free-tuition schools are small and located in rural areas. Some also cater to specific majors, like engineering or computer science. And a few are religion-based, including St. Louis Christian College in Florissant, Missouri. 

No-loan schools for low-income students

After free-tuition programs, zero-loan financial aid policies are the next best thing.

“About six dozen colleges have 'no-loan' financial aid policies that replace loans with grants in the financial aid package,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Cappex.com, an online scholarship search tool. “These financial aid packages tend to be among the most generous.”

The vast majority, however, are only available to the lowest income students who qualify based on financial need.

Finaid.org, a college financial aid consumer web site, notes low income is typically defined as the bottom quintile by family income. For the federal Pell Grant, for example, that might be students with family income below $40,000, or families with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line.

There are four main types of no-loan policies, according to Finaid. Some schools eliminate loans entirely from the financial aid package of low-income students.4

(Princeton University notes on its website that families with incomes of $65,000 or less qualify for a grant to cover full tuition and room and board. Some 60 percent of its students qualify for financial aid, 84 percent of recent Princeton seniors graduated debt free, and the average grant for a student receiving financial aid for the Class of 2020 was $48,000.)  

The no-loans colleges include the entire Ivy League -- Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell, Brown and Dartmouth -- as well as state schools like Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the University of California at Berkley, said Kantrowitz.

Work Colleges

Some college have also adopted the work-college model, in which all students who live on campus work for the school to help offset the cost of tuition. Paul Quinn College in Dallas, Texas, for example, was recently designated an official “work college” by the U.S. Department of Education, making it the first urban, historically black college and university to earn the designation — and the ninth college in the country overall.

Other work colleges include Blackburn College in Carlinville, Illinois, College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Missouri, and Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont.

Paul Quinn's residential, full-time students are required to participate in the work program regardless of financial need. They can hold various jobs, including tending the on-campus farm or assisting the registrar, for anywhere from 300 to 400 hours per academic year to earn the full-tuition grant of $5,000 and cash payment of between $1,000 and $1,500, which may enable them to graduate with less than $10,000 of student loan debt.

Pay Attention

A generous financial aid policy, of course, does not necessarily mean that a school is a fit. It may not even be the best deal, said Kantrowitz, noting that students should review their financial aid packages carefully, so they don’t get hit with a bait and switch.

“About half of all colleges practice front-loading of grants, so the big grant that attracted you to a college may be much lower in the sophomore, junior, and senior years,” he said.

Kathryn Randolph, a contributing editor for Fastweb online financial aid database, recommends college-bound students apply to a range of schools that may or may not fit them academically: a safety school, a target school, and a reach school.

“They should also explore a range of schools financially: schools that they know they can easily afford; schools that they can afford with scholarships, financial aid and maybe a little student debt; and finally, schools that are a reach financially, but that are the right academic fit,” she said.

After they get their acceptance letters, students and their families should then use the net price calculators available on every college website to figure out which is the best fit financially, she said.

“Students are able to input their data points – family circumstances, academic records, and other pertinent information – in order to see what they’ll realistically need to pay to attend,” she said. “Technically, students could end up paying more for a public in-state college than they would at a private institution because of aid dollars. That’s why it’s paramount to get the full picture through net price calculators.”

Don’t forget to conduct scholarship searches outside of schools, too, through online databases, she said. “They will help students find scholarships for their field of study, location, and extracurricular involvement,” said Randolph. “With all this in mind, students should apply to the schools they love, regardless of cost – and then make the financial decisions once they’ve been admitted and can get the full financial picture.

More from MassMutual…

College admissions counselors: Weighing the price

Paying for college: A mutual approach

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College Factual, “Net Price at North Greenville University for College Costs” 2016.

Harvard College, “Affordability,” 2017.

College Board, ”Tuition and Fees and Room and Board over Time”, 1976-77 to 2016-17, Selected Years.

FinAid.org, “No Loans for Low Income Students,” 2017.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.