Do you have to give up a great college match in order to afford an undergraduate education? No, but you do need an action plan!

There are four primary variables for building affordability into your college search: a strong academic profile; a willingness to look outside of your region and to consider schools you might not have heard of; an understanding of which schools DO NOT provide merit money; and time to do your research well.

Academics front and center! Nothing replaces the importance of good grades in any admissions process, even if you have an outstanding talent. Grades aren’t where you’d like them to be? An upward trend is also important, as is making sure you are in the most challenging curriculum you can handle and that you are taking five solid academic classes each semester. Make the most of your testing opportunities by practicing and studying for the SAT and/or ACT exams. The stronger your academic profile, the more likely you will be to qualify for merit aid.

Re-examine the importance of “name brand.” Name recognition is all about who you talk to, so beware of regional prejudices or ignorance! Considering schools that you have never heard of and being more flexible with your geographic criteria are great ways to maximize your options on the affordability front. There are hundreds of small private schools that provide great merit packages, but the misconception is that their higher price tag will mean more out-of-pocket expense. At a public school your family may not qualify for either need-based or merit aid, and therefore, the end results for both choices may be the same.

Know which highly selective schools do not offer merit scholarships! Many families are surprised late in the process to discover that most of their dream schools do not provide merit money and are now off the table. If you know that paying more than $250,000 out-of-pocket is out of the question, then you may need to limit how many of these schools are on your list!

Add time on the front end of your research process so that you can identify colleges that have likely admission probabilities for you. It is easy to keep adding dream schools to your list, but take more time to work on the middle of your list. This will allow you to identify any early, college-sponsored scholarship deadlines (often four to eight weeks ahead of other scholarship/admission deadlines) as well as other special awards that many families discover too late in the process. In this era of budget cuts, you will also want to closely examine department resources if you are looking at specific academic majors or programs.

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