Continuing budget cuts, drops in scholarship funding, and increases in tuition have made it harder for high school seniors who need financial aid to find colleges likely to admit and fund them.
But college counselors say there are seven basic steps to developing a list of schools likely to help low- and middle-income students' chances for affordable degrees.
1. Low-sticker-price colleges. Community colleges and public universities in your community will generally offer you the lowest sticker prices. Students can use USNews.com's college finder to search for public four-year universities in their state with affordable degrees. A few private colleges, such as Berea College, Cooper Union, the Webb Institute, and Deep Springs College, a two-year men's college, charge no tuition. The military academies don't charge money, but they require graduates to pay for their education by serving their countries in the armed forces.
2. "Meet full needs" colleges. Fewer than 70 colleges promise to provide enough scholarships and grants to all regularly admitted students that graduates shouldn't end up drowning in debt. (Very few extend those guarantees to wait-listed or international students, however.) But remember that each school defines a student's "need" differently. And some expect students to borrow as much as $7,500 a year and/or earn as much as $5,000 a year with summer and campus jobs. Still, even these packages are attractive enough that most (though not all) of these schools are highly selective.
[Related story: how colleges determine how much aid you need]
3. "Need-blind" generous colleges. Public colleges and universities admit students based on their qualifications, without regard to their need for financial aid. But most public universities can't afford to give students all the aid they need. Some generous private schools keep their financial aid budgets in check by rejecting some qualified students who need more aid than the college can afford. There are just 46 colleges that claim to meet students' full financial need and admit students solely on their qualifications without regard to their financial situation. Most of these schools are highly selective.
[Related story: the 10 questions to ask to see if you'll get enough financial aid]
4. "No loan" colleges. Most colleges award financial aid packages that include a combination of loans, work-study jobs, and scholarships or grants. But a few dozen colleges promise "no-loan" packages, which instead offer bigger scholarships and earnings opportunities to students from low- and middle-income families. Unfortunately, many students will find that they still have to borrow to meet their "expected family contributions" as determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and/or the individual schools.
5. Colleges with high percentages of low-income students. Many colleges that serve lots of students who receive federal Pell grants (which generally go to students from families earning below about $45,000 a year) provide extra counseling and other support for those having financial difficulties. Ambitious students can narrow their lists even further by looking only at the top-ranked schools that admit lots of low-income students.
6. "Best value" colleges. U.S. News has gathered a list of colleges of all sorts that, based on our data, offer good educational values. Many of these schools have high sticker prices but are likely to hand out generous amounts of aid to reduce students' true net cost. Other publications, such as Kiplinger's and USA Today, offer similar "value" lists.
7. "Merit money" colleges. Some colleges use scholarships to attract students who, for example, raise the student body's grade-point or test score average, or fill a need in the school band, or raise the competitiveness of an athletic team. Students can use our college search tool to find schools whose students have grades and test scores slightly below theirs. Those potential "safety" schools are more likely to lure a top student with merit aid. To better gauge the odds of actually receiving merit money, check out this list of schools that hand out the most merit aid.
[Related story: how to leverage more aid ]