The best tools and tips for finding a college you can afford, according to a financial aid expert

The campus of Harvard Business School in Boston, MA
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With constant news coverage of the $1.6 trillion student-debt crisis and the ways colleges, corporations and politicians propose reducing costs, it's hard to ignore the fact that college is an expensive investment.

There's an especially dangerous side effect of so much focus on extreme college costs: Some students — often those who are most eligible for financial aid — are scared away from applying to college at all.

But the reality is that a college degree is still one of the best ways to get ahead financially. Skipping college could end up costing more in lost wages over time. College costs can be prohibitive in some cases, but there are ways to search for, and apply to, colleges that will be affordable for your family.

Most colleges and universities are currently accepting applications for the 2020-21 academic year, and early decision deadlines begin in November, so now is the perfect time for high school seniors — and anyone planning to attend college next fall — to start researching where to apply.

Here are five ways to narrow down your college choices and ensure an affordable option is on the table come Decision Day:

1. Focus on ideal characteristics

When you begin to narrow down your college list, identify a few characteristics — financial and non-financial — that are most important to you (e.g., tuition costs and distance from home).

When keeping college costs in mind, consider key criteria, such as annual net cost, percent of financial need met, graduation rate and potential salary after graduation.

There are several tools that can help you search by some of those important financial criteria:

  • College Board's Big Future: Search colleges based on average net price and average percentage of financial need met.
  • College Scorecard: Filter search results based on annual college cost, graduation rate and average salary after attending.
  • Payscale's ranking of colleges by return on investment: Evaluate a school's cost against mean salaries of its graduates. If you're interested in a particular major, you can even compare across schools to see what institutions truly impact will improve your post-graduate career prospects.
  • MyCoalition: Use the custom ranking tool to put together your own list, ranked according to key affordability factors and other traits you're looking for in a college.

2. Have a realistic picture of expenses

Inflated sticker prices and aid calculations that aren't consistent make it difficult for anyone to know what numbers to pay attention to.

Federally mandated Net Price Calculators aim to solve to this conundrum, but they can be overly complicated and don't always offer enough nuance to provide families with a realistic picture of expenses.

One tool that greatly simplifies the process of understanding the estimated costs is MyinTuition, which was created at Wellesley College and is used by 55 colleges and universities.

Even if you aren't applying to one of those schools, this tool can give an approximation of what a responsible financial aid package should cover. Then, you can use it to estimate the costs by selecting a similar institution.

3. Look into merit scholarships

Unlike need-based financial aid (which is determined through forms like FAFSA or the CSS profile), merit-based financial aid is based on a student's achievements and qualifications.

Often, more regionally-known colleges and universities will offer scholarships to encourage talented students from other areas to join their community.

Or, if your academic profile is stronger than the average admitted student at a college, you may be eligible for any merit-based aid awarded by the school.

4. Don't be intimidated by 'selective' schools

In some cases, the most expensive schools in the country can be your most affordable option.

Colleges and universities that may seem way out of reach because they are so selective are likely to offer a financial package that's most within reach for your family. So don't be afraid to look into schools whose selectivity is soaring.

Some have unveiled financial programs that meet the full cost of expenses for all families under a certain income. For example, Rice University announced last year that students whose families have incomes under $130,000 will not pay tuition. This simple and clear statement brings simplicity to the process.

5. Consider in-state options

All students should include a public, in-state (or close to home) college on their final college list. In-state tuition is offered to residents at a discount, and some states offer significant grant support to academically-talented students as well.

Tuition is only part of the cost of college. Luxe living options on campus come at significant expense. Considering an option that doesn't require on-campus housing can also be a great strategy for containing college costs.

You can search for public universities in your state with College Scorecard to identify the best choices for you to earn a degree on time and on budget.

Annie Reznik is the director of the Coalition for College, a collaboration of more than 150 colleges and universities across the U.S. dedicated to improving access, affordability and success in the college admissions process.

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