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You’re smart. You’re motivated. You want to go to a top college, but the price tag of a private college makes it seem impossible. How can anyone afford $55,000 a year or more?

Here’s the thing: you may not have to.

Highly motivated, academically strong first-generation students sometimes write off private colleges and universities as soon as they see the price tag; but, these schools rarely ask all students to pay the sticker price. At many of these schools, 60 percent or more of the student body receives financial aid, and some colleges even offer loan-free packages so that students can graduate without any debt.

In this article, I will tackle three common myths about the cost and culture of selective, private colleges and universities and give you some tips for navigating the application process.

Why are highly selective colleges and universities a good fit for first generation students?

The best college education has positive effects that last long after you receive that thrilling acceptance letter. For many students, selective, private colleges offer the greatest value: higher graduation rates, more financial aid and less debt upon graduation, broader career opportunities after college and, finally, higher lifetime salary potential.

First-generation students in particular often benefit from features like small class sizes, more opportunities for one-on-one interaction with professors and staff members, on-campus residential communities and a wide variety of clubs and organizations. The potential for making personal connections with lifelong friends and advisers (not to mention professional contacts) is a strength of selective colleges and universities, which are usually smaller than public institutions.

Three Myths About Private Colleges

Common Myth #1: “I Can’t Afford It.”

While state schools may seem like a more affordable four-year option, many students don’t realize that merit and financial aid scholarships aren’t always guaranteed for all four years. Public institutions serve a larger student population and generally have less financial aid available to spread across the student body.

Private colleges and universities generally have large endowments (investments, funds or property owned by the college), which means that they can provide more generous financial aid packages. Most of these schools guarantee that they will meet 100 percent of demonstrated need, not just for your first year, but for all four years. They will also adjust your financial aid to take into account changes in financial circumstances, such as if a family member loses his or her job or your family has another student in college.

Common Myth #2: “I won’t fit in.”

Top colleges and universities pride themselves on creating vibrant communities where different types of people can learn together and share their experiences. Many institutions have stated commitments to fostering diversity on campus in all its forms, including ethnic, religious, socio-economic, geographic, learning style, academic interest and background.

Students at these colleges can join many types of clubs and organizations, which generally offer free membership and activities meant to build community around shared interests. These student organizations cover a huge range of interests, from social and academic to athletic, religious and cultural. For example, Williams College (my alma mater) has over 100 student groups, including intramural sports, College Democrats, an outing club, Garfield Republican Society, Ritmo Latino, music and dance groups, a Habitat for Humanity volunteer chapter and even a trivia club. Most colleges also offer mentoring and academic bridge programs specific to first-generation or minority students.

Common Myth #3: “Everyone is rich.”

As stated above, more than 60 percent of the student body at many private colleges receives financial aid. You’ll find that your classmates come from many different economic backgrounds and grew up in communities with different values, traditions and, yes, income levels, all of which make the learning environment a more interesting place.

Remember that appearances can be deceiving. Don’t make assumptions that everyone you meet is well off, and keep an open mind about making friends who come from backgrounds that are different than your own (financially or otherwise).

What to look for when researching colleges’ financial aid policies:

Private colleges are often able to offer applicants financial aid in the form of grants (free money–aid that you don’t have to pay back), work-study, outside scholarships and loans. As you look into these schools’ financial aid policies, look for the following phrases:

  • “Guarantees to meet 100{53c6eff5ce19621f7316832cfedf08caab022021f1679c62c3f44b8900ceaf72} of demonstrated need”: This statement is the gold standard for financial aid. It means that the college is committed to covering all costs of your education that it determines you and your family will not be able to pay. It does not, however, mean that you will receive a full scholarship. Demonstrated need is typically determined by your responses to the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and other financial documents.
  • Need-blind admissions: A need-blind admissions policy means that ability to pay full price has NO bearing on decisions regarding whether or not to admit a student.
  • Debt-free policy: A debt-free policy means that the college has committed to providing financial aid packages that do not involve any loans. Graduates leave college without the burden of any student loan debt.
  • Travel reimbursement: Colleges may not include information about travel reimbursement on their websites, but many schools budget financial aid money for students who demonstrate that they need it in order to travel to and from college. Check your financial aid package, and speak with your admissions counselor if you have concerns.

The nation’s top private colleges are more affordable than you’d think, and they can offer a world-class education at a reasonable price (sometimes even $0) to students who demonstrate financial need.

If you’re a high school student researching colleges, do you have questions about selective colleges and universities? Or, if you’re already attending one of these schools, can you offer your fellow first-generation students some words of advice? Tell us in the comments!

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