July 13 — 12:01 pm, 2016

College-search tool helps students find affordable options

college campus Harvey Finkle

Choosing a college can be overwhelming for the average family. In addition to  managing the stress of earning high test scores and fulfilling acceptance requirements, students and parents also face the rising cost of tuition. Money magazine this week released a college search tool designed specifically for students of families that earn less than $48,000 a year.

Here’s how the tool works: First, users enter their state of residence and SAT (using the 1600 scale) or ACT scores. Next, the tool asks for the annual estimated family contribution and how much the student is willing to borrow per year. After the scores, contributions, and loans have been entered, the program asks for the student’s estimated weekly work hours during the semester. If a student is employed during the summer, they are also asked to enter their intended contributions from that income. Once all of the data is entered and calculated, the tool generates a list of the best colleges that match that criteria and that meet the family’s financial need. The list could include public schools in the user’s state and private colleges nationwide.

“It’s very important for families to work together to make informed decisions when it comes to post-secondary education,” said Otis Hackney, chief education officer of Philadelphia.

“This includes examining finances and college costs because we continue to see this as a retention barrier for Philadelphia’s students.”

So, using the tool, let’s say a Philadelphia student with the state average SAT score of 900 (using the original 1600 SAT scale) borrows more than $10,000 a year in PLUS loans, has a  family contribution of $2,500 per year, works 20 hours a week, and pays half of his or her minimum wage summer earnings. That student can choose from a list of 36 schools nationwide and 16 statewide. According to this list, Cedar Crest College in Allentown would be their best option, ranked by the magazine at 160.  

If you increase the SAT score to 1300 and the family contribution to $5,000 per year, the list increases to 61 schools nationwide, six in Pennsylvania, with No. 5-ranked Brigham Young University sitting at the top.    

When using the tool, families should remember that these calculations are based on averages. Each college will evaluate a family’s specific financial situation after the student is admitted and award financial aid packages based on need.

In addition to the new tool, Money magazine has released its third annual ranking of the best colleges for your money.

Schools that the magazine considered for this list have at least 500 full-time undergraduates and a six-year graduation rate at the median or above, which differs between private and public institutions. The schools are also in good financial standing and have good reports with bond-rating agencies. This year’s list contains 705 schools ranked in 24 categories, such as best public/private institutions, merit aid, and chances of acceptance, to name a few. Princeton University came in at No. 1, with the University of Michigan at No. 2.

“I always recommend that students apply to a well-rounded list of schools,” Hackney said. “To ensure both acceptance to college and also successfully graduating within four to five years with a meaningful degree toward readiness.”

For more information on affordable colleges, check out Money’s 2016 Best Value Colleges and best-value colleges of every type.

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