MONEY College

Many Colleges Offer Affirmative Action for the Rich and Powerful

School girls in uniforms
Hepp—Getty Images

Survey finds 25% of college admissions officers felt pressured to admit influential slackers.

Didn’t get into the college of your dreams? Maybe you weren’t qualified. Or maybe you weren’t connected, influential, or rich enough.

One hundred admissions officers at 400 top colleges and universities surveyed by Kaplan Test Prep—so fully 25% of respondents—said they have “felt pressured to accept an applicant who didn’t meet (the) school’s admissions requirements because of who that applicant was connected to.”

And 16% said their school gives an edge in admissions to applicants who are the children or siblings of alumni.

The Kaplan survey confirms what has long been one of the worst-kept secrets in the college admissions world: Many colleges give admissions advantages to applicants related to people college officials believe can help the institution in some way.

Many college officials have defended the practice, noting that these comparatively few exceptions help them raise big donations and recruit powerful backers to do things like fund scholarships for smart but needy students.

But this age-old policy of “affirmative action for the rich” has also been criticized as one factor contributing to the continuing gaps between college graduation rates for the rich and poor, as well as ongoing economic inequality. (Colleges’ chintzy financial aid policies also worsen inequality, charges one high school principal.)

Even colleges that say they are “need-blind” in admissions—in other words, don’t hold a student’s need for financial aid against them when making admission decisions—aren’t wealth-blind. Many wealthy and generous private colleges, such as Duke University, set aside at least a few letters of admission for “development admits”—underqualified children of families whom the school’s Development Office fundraisers hope will make large donations, journalist Dan Golden documented in his book The Price of Admission.

Many public universities also bend the rules in favor of influential slackers. Investigators found that between 2005 and 2009, the University of Illinois admitted an estimated 800 underqualified students who were connected to politically powerful families, for example.

And the president of the University of Texas at Austin, Bill Powers, pressured his admissions officers to admit as many as 73 underqualified students from influential families in the last six years, a state investigation recently found. Powers defended his actions, arguing that the number of exceptions affected less than one-tenth of 1% of the student body and “served the best interests of the institution.”

Seppy Basili, vice president of college admissions and K-12 programs at Kaplan Test Prep, cautions ordinary applicants against giving up because of this “thumb on the scale” for a small group of “development admits” and “legacies” (children of alumni). “The overwhelming majority of accepted college applicants are successful due to their own merits,” he says.

(Get tips on how to get your application to the top of the pile.)

In addition, Basili noted that such programs are under increasing scrutiny, thanks in part to the growing transparency of admissions practices. An increasing number of students are using an obscure provision in a federal law to gain access to their previously secret admissions files.

MONEY College

Yes, College Costs Are Eating Up More of Your Income

A year of public college costs low-income families 40% of their annual salary now, up from 29% in 2007.

It’s not your imagination, parents: Your kids’ college costs are indeed eating up a higher percentage of your income, a new federal report shows.

The report, which looked at the costs of college in the 2011-2012 academic year (the last year for which data is available) also documents a shocking increase in net costs for America’s lowest earners. That’s raising worries that the poor are increasingly being priced out of college, one of the main paths to a berth in the middle class.

The study found that families with incomes of up to about $31,000—who were the lowest-earning 25% of all American families with kids in college at that time—paid, on average, $12,300 to send a child to a public university, after grants and scholarships were subtracted. That was the equivalent of 40% of that group’s top annual income. In the fall of 2007, that same group would have paid only 29% of their income, a full 11 percentage points less.

For the families in the lower- to- middle- quarter—$69,000 was the midpoint for families with kids in college—net public college costs ate up 23% of the group’s top income, a 2 percentage point hike from the share of income needed by similar families in 2007.

Upper middle class families also saw their net costs rise. Families with incomes of about $111,000 earned more than 75% of all families in the study with children in college. The group with incomes between $69,000 and $111,000 paid about $20,400 (or 18% of top earners’ income) to send their kids to in-state public college, up 2 percentage points from 2007. Families in the top quarter, earning $111,000 a year and up, paid an average of $22,800 for their kids to attend in-state public college.

The data show that when it comes to funding college, “it pays to be rich,” says Margaret Cahalan, director of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, a Washington, D.C., think tank. The findings, she says, are further evidence that claims the poor are getting more or better financial aid than the middle or upper classes “are simply not true.”

In fact, Cahalan says, the numbers show that financial aid has lagged so far behind rising living and tuition costs that many low-income students are being priced out of college. “Low-income students have to work too many hours to survive, and that is depressing their ability to compete and be successful,” she says. “Many of them end up leaving school because they can’t juggle work and school.”

A growing body of research shows that being priced out of college can have devastating lifetime effects. Workers without higher education are at a disadvantage in the job market and tend to get stuck in lower-paying jobs, according to several reports by the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce. A 2014 analysis of the job market, for example, found that just about 28% of all jobs in 1973 required at least an associate’s degree. By 2010, those requirements covered 42% of jobs. And by 2020, 47% of jobs are expected to require at least a two-year degree.

Income quartile
(annual income range)
1st
($0-$31,000)
2nd
($31-$69,000)
3rd
($69-$111,000)
% of top income needed to pay average net price (after grants are subtracted) for 2011-2 at a typical in-state public college 40% 23% 18%
% of top income needed to pay average net price (after grants subtracted) for 2011-2 at a typical private college 64% 34% 26%

Sources: U.S. Department of Education, Money calculations

Read next: How to Find a College That Won’t Drown You in Debt

MONEY Taxes

How To Make the Most of the Single Best College Tax Break

College campus
Andersen Ross—Getty Images This scene can save you money on your taxes.

Nearly 2 million Americans pay too much in taxes because of confusion over education benefits. Here's how to avoid that mistake.

Back in January President Obama proposed consolidating many overlapping education tax benefits, a plan that appears long dead. Too bad, since millions of taxpayers make mistakes writing off education expenses on their 1040s and pay hundreds in unnecessary taxes as a result.

A 2012 Government Accountability Office report found that education tax breaks were so complicated and poorly understood that 1.5 million families who were eligible for one failed to claim it and overpaid their taxes by more than $450 a year. Another 275,000 families were so confused that they opted for the wrong benefit and overpaid by an average of $284.

Here’s how to get college tax breaks right on this year’s return and beyond.

Stick With The Winner

In any given year, you’re allowed to claim only one of these three tuition tax benefits: The tuition and fees deduction, the lifetime learning credit or the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC).

Don’t be distracted by all the options. The AOTC is the most lucrative and broadest education tax benefit available, and it should be your first choice, says Gary Carpenter, a CPA who is executive director of the National College Advocacy Group.

The AOTC, available to a student for up to four years, cuts your federal taxes dollar-for-dollar. You can take the credit for up to $2,000 in tuition or fees, and 25% of another $2,000 of qualified expenses, for a total max of $2,500. Married couples with adjusted gross incomes of up to $180,000, or $90,000 for single filers, are eligible to claim the AOTC.

Even if you owe no federal income taxes, you can get a refund check for up to $1,000 by claiming the AOTC.

Maximize Your Benefit

Now that you know that the AOTC is tops, you need to know how to get the full benefit on the maximum $4,000 in eligible expenses, which can be complicated in these four situations.

1. You have a super generous financial aid package: Did your little genius get such a big scholarship that you’ll pay less than $4,000 for tuition, fees, and books? Once you’re done celebrating, call the scholarship provider and ask if you can use some of that money to pay for room and board instead, advises Alison Flores, principal tax research analyst with The Tax Institute at H&R Block.

This may seem odd, since scholarships are tax-free only if you use the money for tuition and fees. But by shifting some of the aid so that you pay $4,000 worth of tuition, fees, or book costs out of your own pocket, you can get the maximum benefit from the AOTC. That $2,500 credit typically outweighs whatever additional taxes you’d have to pay on a re-allocated scholarship, says Flores.

2. Your tuition payments are low: One way students attending low-tuition colleges can make sure they get the full advantage of the AOTC is by paying a full academic year’s tuition by Dec. 31, instead of waiting until the start of the second semester in January to pay that semester’s bills.

3. You’ve saved in a 529 plan: You can claim the AOTC only for tuition that you paid for with taxable savings, notes the NCAG’s Carpenter. When you take money from a 529 college savings plan to pay your tuition, that withdrawal is tax-free. So there’s no double dipping. You can’t also claim the AOTC for those funds.

Assuming you don’t have enough in the 529 plan to pay the entire annual tuition, room and board bill (and who does?), earmark the 529 withdrawal for room and board, and pay at least $4,000 in tuition with taxable savings.

4. You’re taking out large loans. If you’re using loans to cover tuition, you can use the money you borrowed to claim the AOTC. If you and your spouse report a joint income of less than $160,000, you can also deduct the interest on your payments.

Parents can deduct the interest on loans they take out for their children’s education, but not on payments they voluntarily make on the student’s loans, Flores notes.

Take Care With the Paperwork

Once you’ve done everything else right, don’t lose a tax break at filing time. For that, you need to keep good records.

Colleges typically don’t report all the information you need to claim all of your education tax breaks on the 1098-T forms they send out each year. They usually provide only the amount they’ve billed you, explains Anne Gross, vice president of regulatory affairs for the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO).

To get all of the tax goodies, you’ll have to show the IRS how much you paid, and where the money came from. Some colleges will allow you to gather that information from their online accounts portal, Gross says. But as a backup, it’s smart to keep your own records.

Shift Gears as a Super Senior or Grad Student

Once you’ve used up a student’s four years of eligibility for the AOTC, try for some of the smaller, more limited education tax breaks. If you earn less than $128,000 as a married couple, switch to claiming the lifetime learning credit starting in year five of your dependent student’s higher education. There is no limit to the number of years you can receive this credit of up to $2,000.

If you make between $128,000 and $160,000, you can write off up to $4,000 from your income using the tuition and fees deduction.

Keep Cutting Your Taxes Post-Graduation

When school is finally over, the tax breaks don’t end. Singles earning less than $80,000 and couples earning less than $160,000 can deduct up to $2,500 a year in student loan interest. Parents with federal PLUS loans can claim their interest payments on this deduction. But parents who are voluntarily making payments on their children’s student loans cannot claim that interest.

Catch a Break When You Save Too

Finally, President Obama’s plan to eliminate tax-free withdrawals from 529 college savings plan has been squashed as well, preserving the tax benefits on the money you’ve set aside for your, your children’s, or your grandchildren’s college costs. Although contributions to a 529 are not deductible on your federal income tax return, the earnings grow tax-free. And as long as you spend the money on qualified college expenses, withdrawals are tax-free as well.

What’s more, 32 states give you a break on your state taxes for your 529 contributions (or, in New Jersey’s case, a scholarship). These benefits are worth exploiting: A Morningstar report found that, on average, they equate to a first-year boost on your investment returns of 6%. Check this map to see if you live in a state that rewards college savers.

MONEY College

The 25 Public Colleges Where Students Graduate The Fastest

Final exercises, University of Virginia
Dan Addison—U.Va. Public Affairs At the University of Virginia, 86% of freshman graduation in four years.

The schools that will help you avoid the wasted time and added expense of spending a fifth year (or more) in the classroom.

One casualty of the ongoing budget problems and overcrowding at public colleges is speed. The average time public college students take to earn what used to be called a “four-year degree” is currently about 4.6 years.

In fact, only one third of public college students earn their bachelor’s degree in four years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

And that means the average in-state public college student is paying for an additional semester of tuition, room, board, and books—which is currently running about $12,000, according to College Board data.

Many private college students need more than four years to graduate as well, but on average, fully 53% of private college students earn their bachelors’ degree on time, 20 percentage points higher than the public college rate. (For the private colleges that graduate students the fastest, see our list of the top 50.)

One major cause of students’ slower progress at public colleges is underfunding. At some colleges, such as some low-cost California State University campuses, students complain they can’t get into the majors or classes they need to complete their degrees. At several CSU campuses, such as San Jose State University, students have almost no chance to finish on time.

But students also slow themselves down, research shows. Generally, schools that accept students with less-than-perfect high school records—such as open access public colleges—tend to have low four-year graduation rates. Many struggling students have to take remedial classes before they can handle college-level work, which adds a semester or two to their degree.

And students who change majors late in their college career may have to take additional requirements, which can force them to spend an extra semester or two at school. (You can read more about the simple strategies to help you graduate on time here.

These 25 public colleges have the best records of graduating students on time. They are ranked by four-year graduation rates in the table below, which also lists Money’s best college values ranking and our estimate of the average cost of a degree for an in-state student, after college scholarships and grants are subtracted.

College state Money ranking % of freshmen who earn a bachelor’s in 4 years Estimated average net cost of a degree for the class of 2019
1. University of Virginia-Main Campus VA 16 86% $96,963
2. College of William and Mary VA 60 83% $99,106
3. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill NC 40 81% $86,637
4. University of Michigan-Ann Arbor MI 22 76% $97,359
5. University of California-Berkeley CA 13 72% $130,629
6. The College of New Jersey NJ 53 72% $131,357
7. St Mary’s College of Maryland MD 319 71% $123,480
8. University of California-Los Angeles CA 31 69% $130,477
9. SUNY at Binghamton NY 162 69% $102,165
10. University of California-Irvine CA 32 68% $126,546
11. University of California-Santa Barbara CA 95 68% $135,233
12. University of Connecticut CT 120 68% $105,084
13. University of Delaware DE 66 68% $101,911
14. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign IL 76 68% $122,217
15. Miami University-Oxford OH 144 68% $128,987
16. University of Maryland-College Park MD 68 66% $102,069
17. SUNY College at Geneseo NY 359 66% $98,680
18. University of Mary Washington VA 107 66% $101,952
19. University of Florida FL 28 65% $89,572
20. Pennsylvania State University-Main Campus PA 177 65% $147,090
21. James Madison University VA 53 65% $101,193
22. University of Vermont VT 300 65% $96,549
23. University of New Hampshire-Main Campus NH 261 64% $121,657
24. University of Pittsburgh-Pittsburgh Campus PA 319 64% $133,585
25. Citadel Military College of South Carolina SC 114 62% $98,671

Sources: U.S. Department of Education, Money calculations

MONEY College

4 Ways To Spend One Less Semester in College—and Save

Students walking on El Paseo de Cesar Chavez street on San Jose State University campus, California
Ellen Isaacs—Alamy San Jose State University, where the average student takes more than five years to graduate.

The average college graduate takes an extra semester to earn a degree. Here's how you can finish up in four years and avoid those additional costs.

In all the paperwork sent by colleges in those fat acceptance envelopes mailed out in the spring, one distressing fact is typically being left out: You’re probably going to pay at least one extra semester’s worth of tuition.

If past trends continue, only about 40% of the freshmen who start at a four-year college this fall will earn their bachelor’s in four years, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Another 15% will take five years. A few more stragglers will need six years or more, while 41% percent of freshmen won’t ever earn a bachelor’s degree. Overall, the average student who does graduate takes 4.4 years to earn a degree.

That means the typical student is paying for one extra semester of school, since about two-thirds of the students who need extra time are taking courses full-time and paying full tuition all the way through, according to analyses by Judith Scott-Clayton, an economist at Teachers’ College, Columbia University.

But Scott-Clayton and other experts say there are four things you can do to reduce the odds that you’ll have to pay for more than four years of college.

1. Bank credits in high school. Peter Van Buskirk, a former dean of admissions at Franklin & Marshall who now runs the Best College Fit private consulting firm, urges students to earn early college credits and perhaps place out of some requirements by taking advanced placement tests in high school. Once you’ve exhausted all your opportunities at your high school, another option is to enroll in other college credit courses, such as community college or online classes.

2. Take a full load at college. Part of the problem is that the federal government classifies 12 credits a semester and above as “full-time attendance,” says Scott-Clayton. So lots of students think taking 12 credits is sufficient.

But at that rate you’ll need 10 semesters (five years) to earn the standard 120-credit requirement for a bachelor’s. Your first college math lesson: The only way to earn 120 credits in four years is to earn at least 30 per year, which means 15 per semester.

4. Test your major early. Take courses and internships related to your major in freshman and sophomore years so you can quickly find out if you want to switch.

Switching majors in junior and senior year is a common cause of graduation delays, says Jim Briggs, a founder of Reducing College Costs, a private financial aid consulting firm. “If you change your major and there are prerequisites that are only offered once in a year, you might be out of luck,” Briggs explains.

4. Find a college that’s on your side. Choose a college that has a track record of helping students finish on time. Students at public colleges that have been hit hard by budget cuts and overcrowding, such as many campuses of the California State University system, often can’t get into the courses they need to finish their degree. At several CSU campuses, such as San Jose State University, students have almost no chance of finishing on time. Only 8% of full-time entering SJSU freshmen earn their degrees in four years, and the average student needs slightly more than five years.

But even some expensive private colleges, such as the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, report very low four-year graduation rates.

You can look up your college’s four-year graduation rate on the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator website. And check out Money’s list of the 50 private colleges and 25 public colleges most likely to get you to graduation in four years.

MONEY College

Why Harvard Will Win the NCAA Tournament

150319_FF_MarchMadnessHarvard
Hunter Martin—Getty Images Fans of the Harvard Crimson celebrate a win over the Yale Bulldogs in mid-March. Just imagine how excited they will be in Indianapolis in April if we're right.

Sure, the No. 13 seed in the West is a long shot. But our March Madness bracket favors colleges that produce alumni who win the financial tournament of life.

For the three weeks known as March Madness, college basketball fans focus on stats like field goal percentages or player efficiency. But we here at MONEY try to stay sane and pay attention to the numbers that matter over the long term.

So when we filled out this year’s NCAA men’s tournament bracket, we picked teams based on our Best Colleges rankings, which look at which schools do best in terms of affordability, quality of education, and graduating students into good-paying jobs. In other words, if we gathered these players and their classmates together again in, say, 25 or 50 years, who would likely be on the best financial footing?

This gave us an unorthodox final four of Harvard (6th in our value rankings, while a 13th seed in the tournament), Notre Dame (20th), Virginia (16th), and UCLA (31st), with Harvard besting Virginia in Indianapolis on April 6.

That Harvard is the overall winner is not exactly surprisingly: 97% of students graduate, there have been no recent defaulters on student loans, and the average recent graduate is earning about $55,000 a year these days, according to data from Payscale.com. But the elite private colleges don’t dominate in this bracket or in life. Two of our final four are public universities–Virginia and UCLA–which also have graduation rates above 90% and whose recent alumni typically earn about $50,000 a year.

Looking for this year’s Cinderella story? Manhattan (40th), the rightful winner of the play-in game against Hampton under our system, is predicted to oust undefeated Kentucky (389th) in the first round and go all the way to the Elite Eight. Another sixteen seed makes history in our bracket, as Lafayette College (28th) knocks off Villanova (114th) in the first round and hangs on until the Elite Eight as well.

There are some squeakers along the way. Schools within 20 places of each other in our ranking are roughly equivalent. But, strictly by our numbers, pricey, exclusive Lafayette edges out public and relatively affordable UC Irvine (32nd) in the Sweet 16 round. Lafayette Leopards tend to graduate into higher-paying jobs than do Irvine Anteaters (a difference of about $8,000 a year, according to Payscale), but they pay much more for their degrees. The average Leopard pays a total of $178,000 (after college scholarships are subtracted) for a bachelor’s degree, versus the Anteaters’ total bill of about $123,000.

Under our college value selection system, Brigham Young (9th) not only makes the roster of 64 teams but goes all the way to the Elite Eight before running up against unstoppable Harvard. Other notables in our bracket: Perennial basketball powerhouse Duke (32nd) barely makes it past Georgetown (37th) in the Sweet 16 before falling to UCLA. But high seeds like Gonzaga (177), Arizona (99), and Kansas (248) stumble early in the tournament.

To see how your college ranks in the competition of life, check out our full college rankings. Dig into our full NCAA bracket below (click the image to see a larger version).

MoneyBracket 3-18b

 

MONEY College

The 50 Best Private Colleges for Earning Your Degree On Time

150316_FF_FastestDegree
iStock

There aren't many "super seniors" at these private schools, where almost every student earns a bachelor's degree in just four years—and avoids the high cost of a longer stay.

Paying four years’ worth of college tuition is hard enough. But too many parents and students don’t realize that there’s a good chance they’ll have to pay for five, since 45% of full-time students need at least an extra year of school to earn a bachelor’s degree, according to Judith Scott-Clayton, an economist at Teachers College, Columbia University.

That common miscalculation can be “devastating” to a family’s finances, says Jim Briggs, a founder of Reducing College Costs, a private financial aid consulting firm. Since an extra year at a private college can easily cost more than $50,000 these days, “we are talking about a lot of money,” Briggs adds.

Before committing to a college, you should check the four-year graduation rate with the U.S. Department of Education. If the rate is low, ask the college and some students why that is, Briggs advises.

While students themselves cause many delays—by flunking required courses or changing majors late in their college careers—some schools do an especially good job of helping students get the courses they need to finish up in four years, saving parents that unpleasant surprise of a fifth year’s worth of bills, Briggs says.

At these 50 private colleges, you’ll have the best chance of graduating on time. At all of them, the average student graduates in 4 to 4.1 years, and more than 80% of the student body earns a bachelor’s degree within those four years. This list, ranked by four-year graduation rate, also includes Money’s best college values ranking and our estimate of how much the degree will cost if you get the typical amount of financial aid.

Your net cost will be lower if you take advantage of, say, federal education tax credits, or if you receive scholarships from private organizations or federal, state, or local government agencies. It will be higher if you don’t receive any financial aid.

College State Money ranking % of freshmen who earn a bachelor’s in 4 years Estimated average net cost of a degree for class of 2019
1) Pomona College CA 50 93% $167,662
2) Haverford College PA 122 91% $187,297
3) Yale University CT 15 90% $188,279
4) University of Notre Dame IN 20 90% $190,073
5) Williams College MA 14 90% $173,630
6) Carleton College MN 79 90% $183,529
7) Davidson College NC 72 90% $170,095
8) Vassar College NY 129 90% $159,658
9) Hamilton College NY 101 90% $187,252
10) Amherst College MA 17 89% $161,350
11) Boston College MA 122 89% $207,603
12) College of the Holy Cross MA 101 89% $191,814
13) Colby College ME 86 89% $195,668
14) Swarthmore College PA 32 89% $180,033
15) Georgetown University DC 37 88% $210,612
16) University of Chicago IL 101 88% $194,477
17) Bowdoin College ME 44 88% $185,213
18) Bates College ME 150 88% $199,275
19) Washington University in St Louis MO 62 88% $218,216
20) Princeton University NJ 4 88% $150,602
21) University of Pennsylvania PA 11 88% $207,659
22) Harvard University MA 6 87% $186,658
23) Tufts University MA 72 87% $207,047
24) Johns Hopkins University MD 107 87% $216,263
25) Duke University NC 32 87% $198,588
26) Dartmouth College NH 24 87% $194,752
27) Cornell University NY 24 87% $200,157
28) Colgate University NY 27 87% $192,119
29) Bucknell University PA 45 87% $204,082
30) Vanderbilt University TN 50 87% $165,615
31) Middlebury College VT 47 87% $208,897
32) Harvey Mudd College CA 7 86% $193,324
33) Wesleyan University CT 169 86% $199,874
34) Northwestern University IL 129 86% $206,162
35) Brandeis University MA 248 86% $197,555
36) Columbia University in the City of New York NY 22 86% $212,954
37) Kenyon College OH 94 86% $196,119
38) Villanova University PA 114 86% $202,283
39) Washington and Lee University VA 39 86% $153,859
40) Macalester College MN 214 85% $143,259
41) Lafayette College PA 28 85% $183,806
42) Claremont McKenna College CA 47 84% $202,642
43) Emory University GA 156 84% $217,059
44) Babson College MA 1 84% $204,884
45) Massachusetts Institute of Technology MA 3 84% $159,316
46) Wellesley College MA 95 84% $170,844
47) Franklin and Marshall College PA 248 84% $196,727
48) Brown University RI 19 84% $197,789
49) Occidental College CA 285 83% $191,630
50) St Olaf College MN 359 83% $139,836
MONEY College

The 10 Colleges With the Most Generous Financial Aid

Vanderbilt University
courtesy of Vanderbilt University At Vanderbilt University, the average merit award tops $20,000.

These top schools offer enough money to cover students' financial needs—and hand out award ample merit grants to high achievers too.

If you need a lot of financial help to pay for college, you’ll have much better odds at a schools that has a generous aid budget.

Unfortunately, these days that’s a small group. The average college provides only enough scholarships or grants to meet 70% of what low- and moderate-income students need to pay the bills, according to data provided by the colleges to Peterson’s.

In all, only 64 colleges in the country say they hand out enough aid to meet the full demonstrated financial need of every regularly admitted undergraduate, according to Peterson’s data. And many members of that elite group, including schools in the Ivy League, don’t provide a penny in merit scholarships. That means no scholarships to students who don’t qualify for need-based aid, no matter their academic achievements.

So Money crunched financial-aid data to find the 10 schools on our Best College Values list that not only provide 100% of the scholarship money they think you need, but also have large merit-aid budgets to help high-achieving, wealthier students.

It’s important, however, to be realistic about what’s “generous.” When colleges say they “meet full demonstrated need,” that doesn’t mean they give everybody full-tuition scholarships. Colleges first calculate how much they think your family can afford to pay (also known as the “expected family contribution”), using the financial information you provide on the FAFSA or the College Board’s CSS/Financial Aid Profile.

On top of that number, many colleges add an expectation that students will take out loans and earn a few thousand dollars a year. The difference between the total expected student and parent contribution and the cost of the college is your “need.” That’s the amount that the most generous colleges will provide in need-based scholarships. Merit scholarships are awarded without regard to your family’s financial situation. (For tips on how to appeal for additional aid, click here.)

School Money rank Avg. est. total family education-related debt Est. average net price of a degree % of students who get merit awards Average merit grant
Vanderbilt University 49 $6,649 $160,791 10% $23,789
Rice University 20 $8,447 $149,851 15% $11,833
Duke University 32 $9,694 $192,804 12% $19,823
Davidson College 72 $10,842 $165,141 6% $22,246
Grinnell College 144 $11,325 $123,981 15% $15,093
University of Chicago 106 $12,986 $188,813 17% $10,205
Kenyon College 94 $13,313 $190,407 13% $13,040
University of Richmond 120 $14,317 $157,221 16% $23,300
Washington and Lee University 39 $15,270 $149,377 8% $35,060
Harvey Mudd College 7 $17,736 $187,694 20% $9,743

Notes: Average total estimated debt is federal student debt and parent Plus loan borrowing per graduating senior; net price for freshman starting in the fall of 2014.

Sources: Peterson’s, U.S. Department of Education, Money calculations.

MONEY College

How to Land More Money to Pay for College

mortarboard on top of pile of cash
Getty Images

Want a bigger financial aid package now that you've been accepted to college? These four moves can strengthen your appeal.

There’s a new spring ritual for parents of high school seniors: financial aid appeals.

Increasingly, college acceptance letters that make your kid shout for joy are likely to make you want to cry for help. On average, schools are giving only 70% of the grants that families, on top of their expected contributions, need to cover the cost of attendance, based on data from Peterson’s. Most colleges, especially public universities, simply don’t have enough money to fully fund every qualified student.

You may be able to win more aid with a well-crafted appeal. It’s not a sure thing: If your kid has neither exceptional talents nor above-average test scores compared with other applicants, don’t expect an above-average merit grant. And colleges may reduce aid offers in response to misguided appeals, says Al Hoffman, director of the College Funding Service Center, a financial aid consultancy in New London, Conn.  “You don’t get the dance unless you ask for it,” he says, “but you’ve got to be careful.”

Follow these tips to draft an appeal letter more likely to win extra grant dollars (and check out our list of the 10 colleges with the most generous aid budgets):

Be realistic about your need. Showing legitimate reasons the school overestimated how much you can afford (such as recent pay cuts or increased medical expenses) is the strategy most likely to win sympathy—and additional aid. Discretionary expenses, however, such as high credit card or car payments, generally aren’t persuasive, warns Brad Barnett, senior associate director of financial aid and scholarships at Virginia’s James Madison University.

Time your request correctly. Colleges carefully monitor who is sending in deposits and by late April have a good sense of whether they’re on target to fill their class, explains Robert Massa, senior vice president for enrollment at Drew University in New Jersey. His advice: File your appeal with your first-choice school in mid-April. The schools that are overenrolled by then probably won’t give you more money anyway, but the others might be worried enough to reconsider the aid package they’ve offered.

Show academic improvement. Many merit grants are based on grades and test scores reported early in the fall of a student’s senior year. Some schools may offer higher merit aid if a student brings his score up on the ACT or SAT later in his senior year, says Deborah Fox, a college planning adviser in San Diego. Louisiana State University, for example, takes scores through April 15; University of Maine, through May 1.

Leave the door open. If financial reasons compel your child to turn down a college she really wants to attend, she should write a polite letter declining the offer of admission and explaining the reason. Some colleges that didn’t fill their classes last spring circled back in May to offer increased aid to certain students who had rejected them, says Hoffman.

Related: 7 Legal Ways to Squeeze More College Aid From the FAFSA

MONEY Student Loans

6 Ways the New ‘Student Aid Bill Of Rights’ Will Help Borrowers

President Barack Obama speaks at Georgia Tech
David Goldman—AP

On Tuesday President Obama proposed some relief, but experts say more is needed.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday proposed a “student aid bill of rights” that offers about a half-dozen small but important improvements for the 40 million Americans who are dealing with student loans.

While congressional action would be needed to make significant changes in the student loan program, President Obama has ordered the Department of Education to take steps by 2016 to make things simpler and easier for student borrowers.

In a speech at Georgia Tech, the president said the federal government will now “require that the businesses that service your loans provide clear information about how much you owe, what your options are for repaying it, and if you’re falling behind, help you get back in good standing with reasonable fees on a reasonable timeline.” The reforms announced today will:

1. Create a centralized website that makes it easy to file complaints and to see all your student loans in one place. Jesse O’Connell, assistant director of federal relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said many students are confused by the government’s use of contractors to collect their loans. Some borrowers who receive letters from these anonymous-sounding private companies, such as Navient (a spinoff of Sallie Mae), throw the letters away, thinking they are identity theft scams. A simple centralized website where borrowers could see all their student debt information, payment amounts, and due dates is a “basic consumer-friendly protection,” O’Connell said.

2. Try having federal employees collecting debts instead of private contractors. The Department of Education is already working with the Department of the Treasury to test out having federal employees collect defaulted student loans. Deanne Loonin, of the National Consumer Law Center, called this a good first step, though only a first step. In a blog post about the proposals, she called the use of private debt collection agencies “a disaster” for financially distressed borrowers, and called for the Department of Education to stop using private debt collectors all together: “Debt collectors are not adequately trained to understand and administer the complex borrower rights available under the Higher Education Act, and the government does not provide sufficient oversight of their activities.”

3. Make it easier for borrowers who become disabled to get their student loans discharged. Currently, some borrowers who qualify as disabled through the Social Security system don’t know that they are eligible for a disability discharge, Loonin says. Making the disability discharge rules clear and consistent “is a critical change for some of the most vulnerable borrowers and should be implemented immediately,” she wrote.

4. Ensure that the private debt collectors hired by the Department of Education apply prepayments first to loans with the highest interest rates, unless the borrower requests a different allocation.

5. Make it easier for students to get IRS information to qualify for income-based student loan repayment.

6. Clarify the rules under which students who declare bankruptcy can get their student loans reduced or eliminated. Congress and the federal bankruptcy courts have imposed tough rules that make it far more difficult for student loan borrowers to get out from under their obligations than almost any other kind of debt. But the president asked the Department of Education to at least clarify the rules to collectors so they can be applied consistently.

What Government Can Do Next

While these steps would improve the lives of many people struggling with student debt, experts pointed to three bigger, but politically unlikely, changes that could make student loans far more affordable and fairer. First, simplify the government’s complicated, income-based repayment system into one option, and automatically sign all borrowers up for the program. University of Michigan economist Susan Dynarski, one of the nation’s leading researchers on financial aid, calls the current menu of “income-driven,” “income-contingent” and “income-based” options a “bewildering array” that requires students to jump through many bureaucratic hoops to qualify for the payment plans that will benefit them the most.

Second, stop charging fees on federal student and parent loans. O’Connell, of the association of financial aid administrators, says that the 4.292% fees on federal parent PLUS loans, for example, are not well explained to borrowers and add an unnecessary expense to families. Eliminating them, which would take congressional action, would save families more than $1 billion a year, he says.

And finally, make it easier for borrowers in dire financial straits to reduce or eliminate their loans in bankruptcy. Loonin, at the NCLC, notes that bankruptcy judges across the country apply varying levels of strictness to the rules, which say loans can only be discharged if repaying would cause an “undue hardship.” These variations make it unfair for borrowers seeking relief and force many to spend what little money they do have on lawyers. Since the strict bankruptcy rules were created by Congress, however, it’s up to Congress to change them.

Read next: The 100 Best Private Colleges for Student Borrowers

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