At Texas A&M University—College Station, for instance, 67 percent of out-of-state students received need-based grants in 2011-2012, bringing the average total cost for those nonresidents to $18,366. Even in budget-strapped California, the University of California—Riverside awarded need-based aid to 35 percent of out-of-state students last year, dipping their average net cost to $16,085 and giving the National University a No. 24 ranking in the Best Value Schools.
The bargains that can be found at Best Value Schools highlight the need for prospective college students and parents to utilize net price calculators, free online tools that colleges are required by law to provide. The calculators take family finances and, in some cases, student performance into account to estimate what a year's total cost at that college could tally. One aim of the calculators is to show families that, despite a high price tag, a school may actually cost a lot less for them.
"It's important for students to understand that the sticker price is not what every student will pay who attends the institution," Tessier of Richmond notes. "It's wise to use the net price calculators to understand what the net price might be for them before they make decisions about ruling out a college from consideration."
Students hunting for a good deal need not stick to the Best Values lists, as colleges and universities offer a variety of cost-cutting opportunities. Some colleges are tuition-free, for instance, while other schools have previously claimed to meet students' full financial need. (By nature of their bargains, both have some overlap with the Best Values lists.)
There are also colleges that guarantee to keep tuition rates steady for the four years it takes to earn a degree, which adds predictability—if not a huge savings—to the process of paying for college. What's more, there are regional tuition break programs for students who stay relatively close to home, and three-year degree programs that effectively shave off one fourth of the total cost of college.
But even a great bargain isn't a good choice if it's from a college that isn't right for you.
"It makes no sense to go to an engineering school if you want to major in biology," notes Arnold Woods, director of financial aid at Iowa's Grinnell College. "There has to be some rationale for selecting an institution, so a student should select an institution because of its excellence of what it does and what it offers. Certainly, finances are part of that process.
"If you're looking at several schools with like qualities that you're looking for and one offers a more handsome award, that makes the selection process a bit easier."
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