Should I apply to colleges I don’t think I can afford?

No–with a big assumption. The assumption is that you already know approximately how much you can afford and how much financial aid  a college is likely to give you. That means that you have already used a calculator such as the College Board’s EFC Calculator to estimate your expected family contribution (EFC) and the college’s net price calculator.

Before this sort of information became readily available, students were often told to go ahead and apply to colleges, especially private ones, because that was really the only way to find out what sort of financial aid they might receive. Students had to submit their FAFSA applications before they had any idea of what their EFC might be much less have a clue as to how much financial aid they might receive.

While you still have to apply to know your actual financial aid award, today there is enough information available to make reasonable estimates of how much a school is going to cost you before you ever submit an application. All colleges are required to provide Net Price Calculators that provide students with estimates of how much they would have paid to attend the college the previous year. Many schools even have tools to estimate the amount of merit money you will receive as well as any need-based financial aid.

Applying with the attitude that “if I get in I’ll find some way to pay for it” is a bad idea. This leads to massive loans that keep graduates (assuming they graduate) from buying cars and saving for down-payments on their first house. See How Much Should I Borrow for College for more on the subject of loans.

There is a situation where you might apply to colleges that you don’t think you can afford based strictly on average net price. These are colleges where your test scores and academic credentials put you in the top third of applicants and makes you a candidate for substantial merit money.

My son applied to very similarly situated colleges and received anywhere from $7,500 to $21,000 in merit money. While we knew he was a good candidate for merit aid at these schools, there was no way of knowing how much he would actually receive without applying.

However, this still requires that you have firmly established what you can afford and be willing to turn down those schools that don’t become affordable even after merit money is awarded. Definitely, do not fall in love with a school if you don’t know you can afford it.

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