Only at IMSA can we casually say that three of our seniors will be going to MIT, another six to Northwestern, two to Stanford, and others to Cornell and Yale and Harvard. At IMSA, academic ability is far from being a limiting factor in formulating college lists. So what is the most limiting factor?
Of course, the easiest way to find colleges you can afford is to start your college search with “affordability,” not “U.S. News and World Report ranking,” at the top of your priority list. The worst situation you can be in is to have acceptance letters from a bunch of good schools, but not have the money to go to any of them. (Yes, this has happened to IMSA students in the past; ask your CAC).
But this gets tricky if you fall in an income range where your parents say that paying for college will be a financial burden, but the FAFSA disagrees. Especially amidst the economic fallout from COVID-19, there is speculation that colleges and universities might need to decrease both their merit and need-based institutional financial aid.
So how do you find affordable colleges in the current circumstances?
- Apply Early Action whenever possible. Most schools don’t have binding Early Action cycles (Stanford being the exception). If you apply earlier, you get your decision letter and your financial aid letter sooner, which will help you determine more quickly if that school gets to stay on your list of “possible places to live for the next 4 years.” The more time you have to consider your financially-feasible options, the better.
- Look at institutional financial aid first. Nearly every college has a webpage dedicated to their institutional merit scholarship programs. It’s a hassle, but apply for as many of those as you can find. It helps that you’ll already know plenty about the college from your research process. Thus, applying for an institutional scholarship lets you deal with a “known entity” — you already know the kind of students they’re seeking and what their mission is. In many ways, that makes institutional scholarship applications easier than external ones.
- Research external scholarships and grants next, and diversify the pool of private scholarships you apply to. Programs like Coca-Cola and Burger King Scholars are more competitive, but they also have incredible financial payoff. Local awards don’t pay as much, but given that IMSA students tend to be academic standouts in their hometowns, region-specific scholarships will also be less competitive. And small awards add up fast — put a few $500-$2,000 scholarships together and you’ve got a year of school cafeteria food (or even a year of housing) covered. Try to balance the number of “small amount, likely win” and “large amount, less likely win” scholarships and grants you apply to.
- National Merit. This is important enough to get its own bullet point. Don’t view the National Merit program as just another fancy title to put on a resume or just a little $2,500 windfall, because it can be so much more, even and especially if you don’t win a National Merit Corporation-sponsored award. Plenty of out-of-state public universities are more than willing to pay all your bills if you’re a National Merit Finalist, and many offer generous partial rides for Commended or Semifinalist students. Ask your CAC for a list of the most lucrative National Merit schools, or this article (and the entire website, really) is an amazing resource for finding generous National Merit-sponsoring colleges and universities.
- Most of all, remember that prestige doesn’t pay the bills.