Picking the right college for you

Most schools acknowledge that you have a better chance of getting in early decision rather than regular decision, so if you think you're on the cusp of admission to your dream school, it may make sense to apply early decision. And the whole college-decision thing is a nail-biting process, so some might think it's worth it just to have it done with months earlier than other students.

In some cases you also have a better chance of getting in "early action," which is similar but doesn't require that you commit to attending if you're accepted. "Unrestricted" early action means you can apply to other early-action schools; "single-choice" early action means you can't.

These scenarios may benefit the college more than the student. After all, if a student applies early decision and gets admitted, there's really no incentive for the college to offer a spectacular aid package or extra scholarships, because the student is bound to come. There is still some chance to do some negotiation, but a student isn't in a strong position if he or she applied to the dream school and a very similar school regular decision, and used their respective financial aid packages as a negotiating point to get the best possible deal for the dream school.

In any event, keep in mind that early-action or early-decision applicants are usually highly qualified, so if you're a less-than-stellar student, you may be hurting your chances and wasting time by applying this way.

Think twice about high-priced colleges

After you've narrowed your list of preferred colleges, a simple way to save money on tuition is to choose a school that isn't overly well known and expensive to begin with.

Many of the so-called "brand-name" colleges earn their reputations from professors who do a lot of high-profile research. But research-heavy universities can sometimes end up compromising the quality of their undergraduate education. Consider, for instance, the prestigious schools that offer auditorium-sized classes taught by graduate student aides, rather than actual professors.

Another drawback of expensive schools: They leave students with big loans to repay after graduation. It might not make sense, for instance, for a student who will pursue a modest-paying social work career to pay back loans for a prestige-school education.

The bottom line: As long as students are clear about the qualities they want in a college, they can get a top-quality education without paying top dollar.

Prestige without the price

Many public colleges are actually equal to or better in quality than some of the best-known private colleges. Public schools are cheaper only because they are subsidized by our tax dollars, not because they are inferior in some way.

In fact, some public colleges actually are considered as prestigious as Ivy League schools, but are much, much cheaper. Examples include the University of Virginia, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Michigan.

Other public colleges are smaller than average, and offer a great education. Examples include Mary Washington (Va.); California Maritime Academy (Calif.); and Evergreen College (Wash.).

Additional places to get a top-quality education at a bargain price are the military service academies; honors programs within public colleges; and even Canadian colleges. Canadian schools are heavily subsidized by the Canadian government and can be a great deal even for non-Canadians.

Final step: Choose a "financial safety school"

Even if you have a handful of great schools you're sure will accept you, it's always smart to apply to a school that fits your needs AND that you can afford, such as a good state college. That way, if you get financial aid offers from all of your top schools and find that you still can't afford any of them, you'll still have a safety net.



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