Financial Aid Difficulties for Middle Class Students

I am an upper middle class rising high school senior whose family is struggling with the expected contribution outlined by the FASFA. I am interested in studying at a rigorous private university that will provide a place for me to grow academically. I have the academics to be competitive when applying to Every school’s net price calculator expects my family’s contribution to exceed full price ($80,000) and offers me no financial aid. The cost estimators expect my family to pay full price at these schools, however, full price exceeds half of my family’s yearly income.

I believe the issue is my parents have lived very frugally and saved well throughout their careers. However despite these savings, it is not financially responsible for me to attend a school at full price as that would use a significant portion of there savings. I am very grateful for my parents financial security, but I am struggling to navigate the college application process as any private university is financially unattainable.

What are others suggestions / experiences with this financial predicament?

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Be certain to apply to schools that are financially affordable.

Also, can you provide examples of what you mean by “rigorous private university”. That’s open to a range of interpretation.


You will find that there are quite a few students with your financial issues.

The first step you’ll need to do is have a frank conversation with your parents about how much they are willing to pay for your college. Perhaps they have some savings set aside for it? Regardless, you need to know how much.

Then you need to look for schools where the merit aid you could receive will put you within reach of those costs.

This will eliminate all schools that don’t give merit aid, but the good news is there are quite a few that do and top students such as yourself go to them every year. Some choose them even when their parents can be full pay because they don’t want to put an extra 100-200K into an undergraduate education. They save for grad/prof school or parents/students simply have the money for something else (car, house, starting a business, retirement, etc).

If you can report back with what is a realistic amount your parents can pay and your desires for college (major or general fields of interest, type of school you’d like - urban/suburban/rural/large/small/religious/secular/etc, region/location if important, and anything else you can think of), folks here on cc can likely provide good options to consider.


There are many people in your situation…those who can’t and/or would prefer not to pay their EFC. If that is the case, you will need to look for schools that offer merit scholarships and/or are have expensive COAs (cost of attendance).

Schools that offer need-based aid only sound like they won’t be options for you. I agree with econpop that you should not apply to schools that aren’t affordable, per their net price calculators. It’s ok to have some schools that on the list where attendance would hinge on getting one of their top scholarships, such as at Vanderbilt. Any of those schools/situations should be considered reaches.

What is your home state?


Did you look at small private liberal arts schools? Also, you might need to focus on schools that give merit scholarships based on GPA/test scores without even knowing your parents finances. These may be less “rigorous” but are worth considering.


We were in the same situation with my S21 He ended up at an instate Public school Florida State University, FSU.
We chased merit and received nice merit from Marquette, Iowa, Miami Ohio, SLU, Arizona State, Loyola Chicago, DePaul and Seton Hall.
No merit Pitt, Penn State,
Michigan State a little merit aid
But ultimately went with FSU
From our experience your Targets less Merit, Safeties More Merit


I am interested in a wide range of schools. I would be interested in applying to a school from a small liberal arts college (Occidental, Davidson) up to an Ivy or a school close to it.

I live in rural Ohio. I am flexible with campus size and location. My parents said that $40k is the max of what is possible. I am interested in studying international relations or political science and public policy. To date, cost has been one of the largest factors in my college search.

I have spent the past month looking at schools that offer merit aid and have had a challenging time. Even when qualifying for merit aid I have a challenging time getting down to the $40k number. Thank you all for your responses so far, and I look forward to the suggestions to come.

Also, is there any option for working directly with an admissions office to adjust financial aid based on changes in income? (My dad recently has recently lost his job and took a salary cut after looking for work for months. My mom had to significantly reduce her working hours due to partial disability within the past five years).

Again, I feel conflicted posting about this because I am incredibly grateful to have financial security and a stable home, meaning I have never faced challenges many face, which is a point that I feel needs reiterated.

If you don’t qualify for need based aid, take the Ivies off your list. There is no merit to chase there.

Look at some of your instate LACs that offer merit - Kenyan, Denison, Wooster. I’d also take a closer look at OSU, Miami, Dayton, and Cincinnati.


Some privates offer substantial merit scholarships (rankings 60+). LACs in the 40+ range might have great merit too. Regional ones offer more.

Purdue is around $42K for OOS. The Ohio State U and Miami Ohio will have strong honors programs and scholarship support. Grad school and jobs will be plentiful if you’re a top performer.

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The first question would be if you made an error when you filled out the FAFSA.

My family is also upper middle class.
My family also had a lot of money in savings.
Our EFC was never close to those full fees you’ve posted.

I’m wondering if you made a mistake when you filled out the FAFSA? Does your family own a business? Somethings seems to be a little out of whack.

@Thumper1, your thoughts?


I ran Rice’s NFC and you have to full pay if your family income is $150K and all other non-retirement assets are $870K w/ $0 in retirement or home equity. If I move $400K to retirement and leave $470K in non-retirement, one gets $19,300/year in grants/work study.

Home equity is treated as non-retirement asset.

Basically, that means that:

  • For a college with a list price of $40k or less (e.g. in-state publics), the reach/match/likely/safety assessment is based on admission difficulty (including to your major if your major is a competitive major).
  • For a college with a list price higher than $40k, the reach/match/likely/safety assessment is based on the difficulty of getting a large enough merit scholarship. For most large competitive merit scholarships, this usually means reach, since there is much less information on how competitive they are. Large enough merit scholarships that are awarded for stats that you have can be considered safeties.
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We’re in a similar boat and will have three kids in college at once. We can afford full COA but are not sure it’s worth it. Many of the private schools that offer merit will not have a $40/yr package which is what you’ll need. My D21 got 4 merit offers and the largest was Lewis&Clark at $35k/yr. it’s a school with looking at. Occidental offered her $20k and George Washington $25k. For our twins graduating in 23 we are looking at more public flagships. Many cost ~$50k for OOS and most offer some OOS merit. You would only need $10-15k which is not unlikely. We were pleasantly surprised at what some of these schools offer top students via their Honors Colleges. Worth checking out: Indiana, U Georgia, UNC, U Wisconsin, U WA, etc. I hear AZ State might be worth checking out but I haven’t done so yet. The middle class is consistently screwed over. Best of luck to you.


Yes, you would need to contact the Financial aid offices, where you plan to apply, and ask them about your scenario. You can also call the FAFSA offices directly and ask about adjusting your information.

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Also check out some of the “not quite ivies” that do offer up to full merit: Emory, Boston Univ, Boston College, Vanderbilt, WUSTL. Just keep telling yourself that you will not attend unless you get the merit you’re looking for. It’s a long shot but worth a try.

I agree that re-running the NPCs with your parents to make sure all the inputs are correct is the first step. There could be a mistake made with your figures, getting that re-checked is important.

Occidental and Davidson are both great schools. However, if your figures turn out to be correct - I don’t think either of them offer merit that would bring the cost down to $40k. I think the most Oxy offers is $30k/year in merit, which would leave almost $50K left to pay. You may have to give up the ‘dream’ of going to a very expensive school on one of the coasts. But luckily, there are still plenty of other schools that might work.

You are in a state with some really strong, affordable public options. I hope you have either Miami OH and/or The Ohio State University as schools you will apply to. They both offer great educations at a impressive price point for in-state students (even before likely merit awards if you have strong stats/scores). Don’t underestimate the value of graduating debt-free and having some money available during college that could be used to subsidize an unpaid internship, study abroad or summer experience. You would have a lot of flexibility in your decide to stay in-state and really figure out how to maximize the utility of the budget your parents have given you.

Good luck with whatever you decide, I think it is important to remember that you are the most important part of your educational experience. There are many many schools where you can get a great education in the areas you are interested in, and you can get the small school experience (through honors colleges, and other ways) even at large schools.

Edited to Add: Some schools that would probably come in at your price point as long as your stats/scores are strong:

Whittier College
University of the Pacific

There are many more out there, your areas of interest aren’t esoteric, and there are many many schools with good to excellent departments.


Since you mentioned Davidson I assume you will consider colleges in the south.

Davidson does offer full ride, full tuition and other institutional merit. It is highly competitive but worth researching.

URichmond and W&L have competitive merit.

In addition to those already mentioned upthread, other LACs that offer merit with acceptance (not competitive) to attract strong students: Furman, Rhodes. Both of those came in under $40k for my D.

For the best chance of merit, apply early. And for competitive merit, pay close attention to the deadlines as most are due by December 1 even if you are applying RD.


So true. For public school merit you usually need to apply in November.

We had a very similar situation to you. I have heard this referred to as the “donut hole” of families too rich to get need based financial aid and too poor to be comfortable paying $75,000 or $80,000 per year per child. For academically very strong students master’s degrees or some forms of doctorates (DVM comes to mind in our case) adds additional potential expense after a bachelor’s degree. Having spent an entire lifetime being frugal does indeed add to this dilemma, both in the sense of having money in the bank and in the sense of not having the personality to want to spend every dollar that you have in the bank. Being older parents can also hurt in that we could not afford to take on debt planning to pay it back after retirement.

We were able to find very good universities that were somewhat affordable at a cost of about $40,000 or less per year (half this in some cases). However, they were not ones that play football in the Ivy League, and were not the top New England LACs (which one daughter would have been competitive for as the #1 top student in her high school). Some were in-state public schools. Some were universities that gave good merit based financial aid (including a few out of state public universities). Some were in Canada.

There are a lot of universities that offer very strong academics. You do not need to attend Harvard, MIT, or Stanford to get a very strong education. I have been very impressed with the opportunities that both daughters have gotten at universities that are not quite as famous. This has for example included writing a grant proposal and winning a government grant to do research over the summer. It is not just Harvard students who get to do this.

I know several hiring managers who have definitely noticed that many of the best candidates are graduating from in-state public universities. They go there because they can afford it. Four years later we hire them. We used to hire a lot of MIT and Stanford graduates. Now we hire mostly graduates from public universities and from universities outside of the US (which are most likely also public).

To me the main point is to recognize that you do not need to attend an “Ivy League or equivalent” university to get a great education.


You are fortunate that your parents can contribute $40,000. Is that per year or total? If per year, please adjust your college list to something affordable especially given the financial issues your family has recently faced.

Ohio has excellent public universities and a huge variety to choose from. Start there.

There are many, many colleges that you could apply to that won’t cost nearly $80,000 a year. Please start considering some of those.