When choosing between a large or small college, popular advice tells students to look at the experience they want to have.
There's the big school experience that includes sporting events, numerous student associations and an endless choice of courses and degrees. Then there's the small school experience with small classes, hands-on learning opportunities and personal access to professors. What many fail to realize is that the choice between a large and a small college may also be a choice on what's affordable.
Many small colleges are also private colleges funded by endowments. Healthy endowments allow the colleges to give scholarships to anyone with a demonstrated need as well as merit based scholarships for exceptional students. These endowments are on the rise and are distributed in the form of tuition discounting, making small colleges more attractive.
A 2007 survey on tuition discounting by NACUBO (National Association of College and University Business Officers) revealed that small colleges with lower tuition did the most tuition discounting in 2007, awarding to an average of 41.7% of students. In addition, small colleges with higher tuition also had a great discounting rate of 39.2%. Large colleges and universities gave gave discounts to 32.5% of their students.
Tuition discounting is, of course, not widely publicized, but if you research financial aid award rates at your prospective colleges you will discover that smaller colleges have greater financial aid and grant reward rates.
Take North Carolina's Davidson College, for example. With an undergraduate population of 1,700 undergraduates, Davidson students have 100% of their demonstrated need met entirely through a combination of grants and student employment. Davis & Elkins College, a rural West Virginia college with a population of 710, has made its costs comparable to nearby West Virginia University through tuition discounts.
Pennsylvania's Swarthmore College, with 1,528 undergraduates gives approximately 50% of the student body scholarship assistance based on need, and 70% of students shared more $34 million in scholarships, loans and work opportunities during the 2009-10 school year.
Students should also search for small colleges that target niche populations. Arts Colleges like Cooper Union in New York and Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia don't charge tuition at all, but instead award talent with a free ride. Likewise, Wesleyan College, an all girls college in Macon, Ga., is known for stacking scholarships to make the school more attractive to young women. With a student population of 700, it is listed third on the list of "Best Value" colleges by the Princeton Review and also made the Forbes 2009 list ranked 15 on the list of "best college buys."
This is the second of a three-part Money College series on making college affordable. Coming Friday: How Ivy League colleges can be affordable to low-income students.