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The most affordable private colleges for low-income families

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Despite rising sticker prices, many of the most elite private schools remain in reach for even the poorest Americans. Contrary to popular belief, research suggests that the most selective colleges and universities are often the most affordable options for low-income families due to need-blind admissions and generous financial aid programs. However, many low-income families are intimidated by high published tuition rates and look only at seemingly less expensive and less competitive schools.


Research conducted by The Hamilton Project, part of the Brookings Institution, shows a clear correlation between cost and selectivity. Tuition data from the National Center for Education Statistics and selectivity classifications from Barron’s indicate that the most competitive schools have the highest comprehensive costs (including room and board), but also the lowest out-of-pocket costs for students from the bottom income group. This means that students from low-income families should not be discouraged by high sticker prices at selective schools. Often, these schools will be the most affordable option while providing more educational resources that will better prepare them for the future.


According to David Feldman, Professor of Economics at the College of William and Mary and coauthor of The Anatomy of College Tuition, “Tuition discounting is not new, but for a variety of reasons the size of the average discount has grown at both public and private universities over the past 25 years. This growing use of discounting is part of the reason for rapidly rising list price tuition in recent years.”


Data from the College Board on college pricing and student aid underscore Feldman’s point. Driven up by rising costs and increased tuition discounting, since 1998, the published tuition, fees, room, and board at private non-profit four-year institutions increased an average of 2.7 percent per year (after adjusting for inflation). The average net price for tuition, fees, room, and board, however, increased at an average 1.3 percent per year, creating a growing gap between published tuition and what students actually pay.



“As family incomes have stagnated over the past decade, schools have had to increase tuition discounting to retain a socioeconomically diverse student body. The attempt to maintain economic diversity pushes up list price tuition, and this is not a bad thing,” said Feldman.


The main issue is that many low-income families do not understand the financial aid process. According to Feldman’s report, the complexity of the financial aid system is a strong deterrent for low-income students applying to college. The large amount of paperwork and the uncertainty about financial aid until the end of the application process disincentivizes even high-achieving students from applying to selective schools. Simplifying the financial aid application process is an important first step in addressing these issues.


The Expanding College Opportunities project created by The Hamilton Project offers similar insight into the power of information. Its researchers showed that by having strategic informational interventions during the college search and application process, low-income students applied to, were admitted to, and enrolled in more selective schools. These students also paid less to enroll in selective schools than they would have paid at less selective schools.


To find which private universities are most affordable for low-income students, HeyTutor analyzed net price and financial aid data for the 2016-2017 school year from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). HeyTutor determined what students in the $0-$30,000 and the $30,001-$48,000 income brackets would pay out-of-pocket for each school.



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For some schools the average net price reported by the NCES is negative. This is because aid awarded can cover other costs not recognized in the published price of attendance (for example travel and participation in certain clubs/activities). In addition, for many schools, students in the lowest income group have a higher reported average net price than students in the $30,000-$48,000 group. This can result from the lowest-income group receiving additional aid outside of federal, state, and institutional sources (e.g. private scholarships), which are not included in the NCES average net price calculation.


That said, the following list of highly-competitive schools offer some of the steepest discounts for students from low-income families.

The most affordable private schools for low-income families


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20. University of Pennsylvania

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $7,755

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $5,323

  • Published total price of attendance: $69,880

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 42%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 11,716

  • Location: Philadelphia, PA


The first of many Ivy League colleges on this list, the University of Pennsylvania is more commonly known as “Penn.” This urban campus in the heart of Philadelphia is steeped in colonial history and was founded by Benjamin Franklin. Today, Penn is home to 12 undergraduate and graduate schools, including the prestigious Wharton School of Business. On average, low-income students at Penn pay one-tenth of the published price.



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19. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $7,432

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $4,727

  • Published total price of attendance: $65,612

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 16%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 4,547

  • Location: Cambridge, MA


Located just outside of Boston, MIT is a major innovation hub for STEM students and research. The MIT Sloan School of Management also offers business and economics degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate level. According to MIT Student Financial Services, 72 percent of MIT undergraduates graduate debt-free. MIT is also one of the most selective colleges in the country, admitting only 6.7 percent of undergraduates for the Class of 2022.



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18. Barnard College

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $6,225

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $6,207

  • Published total price of attendance: $69,912

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 50%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 2,544

  • Location: New York, NY


Barnard College is the only women’s college on this list. Students at Barnard can draw upon the vast resources of New York City for academic, social, and professional opportunities. Notably, Barnard has an academic partnership with the neighboring Columbia University. This means that Barnard students can take classes at Columbia, use its libraries, and participate in its student organizations. Half of the students at Barnard College pay the full attendance price, the highest percentage on this list.



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17. Colorado College

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $5,659

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $7,729

  • Published total price of attendance: $66,124

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 45%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 2,107

  • Location: Colorado Springs, CO


Nestled at the base of Pike Peak, Colorado College offers the best of city life and outdoor recreation outside of the classroom. Unlike most universities, which use a traditional semester schedule, Colorado College uses a Block Plan,” in which students take one class every 3.5 weeks. Colorado College is classified as a liberal arts college and most academic majors are in the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and foreign languages. The published price of attendance is $66,124, and low-income students pay roughly 90 percent less.



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16. Vassar College

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $4,900

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $8,522

  • Published total price of attendance: $69,010

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 24%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 2,353

  • Location: Poughkeepsie, NY


Vassar College is a small liberal arts school located about an hour and a half north of New York City. Although Vassar has been co-ed since 1969, the college is considered one of the Seven Sisters, a group of historically women’s-only colleges. Vassar has more than 100 student organizations, but no fraternities or sororities. Its academics are excellent.


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15. Washington University in St Louis

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $5,716

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $6,580

  • Published total price of attendance: $68,531

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 46%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 7,675

  • Location: Saint Louis, MO


Casually referred to as “WashU,” Washington University in St. Louis is a private research university composed of seven undergraduate and graduate schools. WashU is known for its engineering programs, art and design school, and business school. Students can participate in a variety of extracurricular activities, including student media, Greek life, and sports. For financial aid, Washington University in St. Louis offers more than 125 different academic scholarships and fellowship programs that range from partial to full tuition.



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14. Swarthmore College

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $6,120

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $4,422

  • Published total price of attendance: $67,110

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 37%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 1,577

  • Location: Swarthmore, PA


Located in the Philadelphia suburbs, Swarthmore College has the lowest undergraduate enrollment on this list at 1,577. Although the college was founded by the Society of Friends (the Quakers), the school currently has no religious affiliation. Similar to Barnard, Swarthmore has partnerships with other schools in the area. Swarthmore students can take classes at nearby Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College through the Tri-College Consortium.



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13. Brown University

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $5,335

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $5,459

  • Published total price of attendance: $69,010

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 42%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 6,988

  • Location: Providence, RI


Brown University is located in Providence alongside Providence College and the Rhode Island School of Design, lending the surrounding area a strong college town atmosphere. Unlike most universities, which require general education requirements and major-specific curriculums, Brown University encourages students to forge their own academic path and has no distribution requirements. Brown University is also part of the Ivy League. The university budgeted $135 million for need-based financial aid in 2018-2019.



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12. Brigham Young University-Idaho

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $5,235

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $5,529

  • Published total price of attendance: $9,410

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 39%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 51,881

  • Location: Rexburg, ID


Brigham Young University-Idaho has the lowest published total price of attendance on this list, at only $9,410. Founded by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, BYU-Idaho is one of the only religiously affiliated schools on this list. The school requires students to follow a faith-based honor code. Academics at BYU-Idaho are varied, and include subjects in the humanities, sciences, engineering, business, and performing arts. BYU-Idaho also has the largest undergraduate enrollment on this list at 51,881.



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11. Bates College

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $4,999

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $5,582

  • Published total price of attendance: $67,620

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 49%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 1,787

  • Location: Lewiston, ME


Bates College is a liberal arts college with a strong sense of community. Many students volunteer, conduct research, or perform work through community-engaged initiatives. The academic calendar is composed of two traditional semesters and one “Short Term,” which is a five week immersive course that often takes place off campus. Underscoring the school’s academic rigor, every senior at Bates College must complete a thesis or capstone project. Just under half of students at Bates College pay full tuition.



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10. Vanderbilt University

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $1,168

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $6,043

  • Published total price of attendance: $64,542

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 30%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 6,885

  • Location: Nashville, TN


Named after famous industry titan Cornelius Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt University is composed of 10 schools in disciplines like the humanities, music, and engineering. Located in the heart of Nashville, Vanderbilt University offers students an excellent college town with many opportunities to enjoy live music, dining, and entertainment off-campus. The Vanderbilt Commodores are an NCAA Division I team in the Southeastern Conference, and college basketball and football play a large part in student life.



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9. Yale University

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $4,978

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $4,392

  • Published total price of attendance: $70,570

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 41%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 5,746

  • Location: New Haven, CT


Yale University is one of the oldest universities in America and another member of the Ivy League. Yale University has a wide array of academic programs, including music, business, science, and humanities. Yale students live in one of 14 residential colleges throughout the duration of their studies and have ample opportunities for extra-curricular activities. According to its financial aid website, Yale was the first private research university in America to establish need-blind admissions and need-based financial aid for undergraduates.



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8. Williams College

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $2,780

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $3,798

  • Published total price of attendance: $68,500

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 38%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 2,080

  • Location: Williamstown, MA


Williams College is a prestigious liberal arts college located in the Berkshires in rural Massachusetts. Unlike most American universities, which offer lecture- or seminar-based education, Williams College also incorporates a tutorial system similar to Oxford University. With tutorials, students rely heavily on independent work, which is supported and critiqued by peers as well as a guiding professor. Williams College is known for small class sizes and its close-knit community.



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7. University of Chicago

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $3,620

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $2,289

  • Published total price of attendance: $73,560

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 39%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 6,310

  • Location: Chicago, IL


The University of Chicago is an urban, private research university. The university features more than 400 student organizations and more than 100 majors and minors. The University of Chicago is also highly selective in its admissions process and is known for its thought-provoking application essay questions. The University of Chicago has the highest published price of attendance on this list at $73,560, but the average low-income student pays under $4,000 per year.



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6. Washington and Lee University

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $496

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $3,298

  • Published total price of attendance: $63,880

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 36%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 1,827

  • Location: Lexington, VA


One of the few Southern universities on this list, Washington and Lee University is located in the rural setting of Lexington, VA. Depending on their academic interest, undergraduates may choose to enroll in the College (which includes a variety of majors and minors), or the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics. The university is home to more than 100 student organizations, including Greek life, an investment society that manages $10 million of the University's endowment, and an Outing Club that explores the natural surroundings of Lexington.



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5. Princeton University

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $1,948

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $1,771

  • Published total price of attendance: $63,850

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 40%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 5,394

  • Location: Princeton, NJ


Princeton University is located about halfway between Philadelphia and New York City. This university offers academic programs in humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and engineering. Princeton students live in one of six residential colleges, which provide housing as well as a common social outlet. Many students also choose to join an eating club in their junior and senior years. All Princeton undergraduates are required to write a senior thesis. According to the Princeton admissions website, 82 percent of seniors graduated debt-free in 2017-2018. Like many other colleges on this list, Princeton University is a member of the Ivy League.



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4. Berea College

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $452

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $2,197

  • Published total price of attendance: $32,994

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 0%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 1,670

  • Location: Berea, KY


Located in Appalachia, the Christian-affiliated Berea College was the first college in the South to become coeducational and interracial. The college is notable for its mission of providing higher education to students with limited economic means. As such, no students at Berea pay the full published price. Instead, Berea relies on endowment income, donations, and financial aid to cover the costs of attendance. All students must work a minimum of 10 hours per week as part of their aid package.



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3. Stanford University

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): $0

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $2,548

  • Published total price of attendance: $66,184

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 33%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 7,064

  • Location: Stanford, CA


Stanford University is the only West Coast university on this list. Located in the Bay Area, about 30 miles from San Francisco, Stanford combines a college town setting with easy access to a big city. Undergraduates can pursue more than 65 different majors, and the school actively encourages participation in research programs and study abroad. Only one-third of Stanford students pay the full tuition price, and the average student in the $0-$30,000 income bracket will pay nothing out of pocket.


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2. Harvard University

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): -$230

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $632

  • Published total price of attendance: $66,609

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 28%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 9,965

  • Location: Cambridge, MA


Harvard University was founded in 1636, making it the oldest university in the country. Harvard is known as being one of the most selective universities in the country as well, admitting less than 5 percent of applicants. Many of the 50 fields of study at Harvard are interdisciplinary, like “History and Literature” or “Chemistry and Physics.” For low-income families making $30,001-$48,000, Harvard has the lowest average net price on this list at $632 per year. Harvard is also an Ivy League college.


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1. Duke University

  • Average net price ($0-$30,000): -$1,070

  • Average net price ($30,001-$48,000): $827

  • Published total price of attendance: $69,558

  • Percentage of students paying full price: 32%

  • Undergraduate enrollment: 6,696

  • Location: Durham, NC


At -$1,070, Duke University has the lowest average net price for low-income families making $0-$30,000. The negative net price is likely the result of aid awarded to low-income students covering costs not included in the published price of attendance (for example travel and participation in certain clubs/activities). Duke University offers two academic paths for undergraduates: the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences and the Pratt School of Engineering. In addition to its affordability for low-income students, Duke is known for its stellar college basketball team and rivalry with nearby UNC-Chapel Hill. Duke University had an 8.6 percent acceptance rate for the Class of 2022.

Methodology & full results

The data used in this analysis is from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Net price and financial aid data is for the 2016-2017 school year—the most recent data available. Statistics on enrollment, tuition, fees, room, and board are from the 2017-2018 school year, which is also the most recent data available.


Net price data is for full-time undergraduate students entering postsecondary education for the first time and awarded Title IV aid. Average net price is generated by subtracting the average amount of federal, state, local, institutional, and scholarship aid from the total published price of attendance. Total price of attendance includes published tuition and fees, books, supplies, room, board, and other expenses.


For this analysis, the average net price for students in both the $0-$30,000 and the $30,001-$48,000 income brackets were evaluated. Both average net price data fields were converted to percentiles, and the percentiles were averaged to derive a composite affordability score. Institutions were then ranked by this composite score.


Only private, not-for-profit, degree-granting, four-year or above institutions with at least 1,000 undergraduates are included. Additionally, special-focus institutions (e.g. performing arts, health, faith-related, etc.), online/distance education institutions, and institutions located in U.S. territories were filtered out.


For a complete list of the top 100 most affordable private colleges and universities for low-income students, see the original story on HeyTutor.



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