Though many schools of higher education are firmly rooted in tradition—through campus life, sports, and legacy families—what higher education looks like today is quite different than it did for previous generations. With over 2,700 schools to choose from, online classes are becoming the norm and more schools are offering completely online degrees. Flexible schedules are allowing more people to earn degrees than ever before, but it comes at a cost (literally).
Tuition prices have skyrocketed in the past 20 years. Between 1995 and 2015, the average tuition at private U.S. universities rose by 179%, surpassed by out-of-state tuition for public schools’ increase of 226%, and in-state public university tuition alarming jump of 296% (note that inflation between the same years grew by just 55.1%). Collectively, the 44 million Americans saddled with student loans are $1.3 trillion in student debt. The average higher education graduate in 2016 has $37,172 in student loan debt, 6% more than students who graduated just one year before. So in short, all universities, big and small, are increasingly expensive.
Cost aside, earning your college degree is more important today than it ever has been—with one in every three people holding a bachelor’s degree or higher. With so many factors determining which career path is right for you, affordable small colleges make it easier to find your perfect fit without drowning in debt.
Why Choose a Small College?
Small colleges can be among the most affordable options for higher education and are scaled to create a strong sense of community among students and staff. Starting college can be overwhelming, but a smaller campus with fewer students can reduce reasons for anxiety.
Academically, affordable small colleges are more likely to employ instructors and professors who are there because they love to teach. Large universities often pull big-name professors who teach in order to have an institution to conduct their research. Small class sizes at small colleges facilitate one-on-one interactions and a tight-knit learning environment. With a shorter list of majors, small colleges often offer customizable degrees that cater to the career goals of each individual student.
How to Keep Small Colleges Affordable
Whether you go big or small, starting with a low base tuition is the best way to keep college affordable. Grants, loans, scholarships, and part-time jobs all make getting your degree more affordable, but first you need to determine which combination of these subsidies and payment methods is right for you:
Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
During your college years, you’ll likely become quite acquainted with the acronym FAFSA—a huge factor in determining the amount and the kind of financial help you’ll receive each year. Your year in school, enrollment status, cost of attendance, and the income of your parents or guardians (unless you are an independent student, then your personal income will be a factor instead) all determine your eligibility for financial help. The tricky thing is, even if your parents or guardians do not plan to help pay for your tuition, FAFSA will take their income into account as if they are the ones picking up the check.
Government financial aid is divided among two categories. Need-based aid is financial aid that you can receive if you have financial need and meet other eligibility criteria. It includes grants, subsidized loans, and work-study opportunities. Non-need-based aid does not take Expected Family Contribution (based on household assets and income) into account, but rather is based on the other assistance a student has or will be receiving. Unsubsidized loans and minimal grants are included in non-need-based aid.
To qualify for both subsidized and unsubsidized loans, a student must be enrolled at least half-time (taking 6 credit hours of classes, for example). Subsidized loans give students a six-month post-graduation grace period until your payment obligation kicks in. Interest accumulated while the student is enrolled at least half-time is paid by the U.S. Department of Education. Interest payments for unsubsidized loans accrue throughout a student’s enrollment time and are tacked-on to the loan amount once the student graduates.
Unlike loans, grants do not have to be paid back. Grants can be privately or governmentally funded. The Federal Pell Grant is part of FAFSA’s need-based aid and is usually awarded only to undergraduate students who have not yet earned a degree. Every student who is deemed eligible on a need-based evaluation can receive the Pell Grant. The amount allotted per student each year fluctuates and will change each academic year. Even if you do not qualify for grants through the government, there’s a good chance you can apply to some through your affordable small college’s website.
Scholarships are awarded for just about anything you could think of and though they usually require a lengthy application process, scholarships can help save thousands of dollars on college tuition. High schools, extracurriculars, and sports teams, as well as private foundations and companies, are all great resources for potential scholarship money. College websites list scholarships awarded through the school. Like grants, you don’t have to pay back scholarships.
Nearly every school offers a work-study program that provides part-time work for enrolled students with financial need as determined by FAFSA. Work-study programs are often available to both half-time and full-time students and include both on-campus jobs and jobs through select nonprofit organizations or public agencies. Work-study jobs are typically very flexible and work around class schedules. Students are paid hourly and placement is determined by a student’s skill-set and financial need, though the early worm does usually get the employment worm! Be proactive. If your FAFSA determined you eligible, apply before the semester starts to increase your chances of being placed.