How Generous Is This College?

How can you tell if a college or university will cut the price for your child?

You can get an idea by looking at a school’s Common Data Set.

If you don’t know what a Common Data Set is, you’ll want to read the posts that I wrote last week on this valuable document:

Researching Colleges With the Common Data Set

Common Data Set 101

Today I want to focus on the financial aid section of any school’s Common Data Set. You’ll find all the financial aid information located in Section H of the document.  I’m going to use Macalester College in St. Paul for my example simply because I learned from Alexa, which ranks websites by Internet traffic, that the biggest concentration of people visiting my blog come from Minneapolis-St. Paul. Who knew?

To obtain Macalester College’s Common Data Set, I just Googled the school’s name and Common Data Set. Macalester has its nine most recent Common Data Set’s posted on the Institutional Research section of its website.  FYI, you can often find other information about a college on its Institutional Research site. For instance, I discovered the Macalester College Fact Book on its site that contains lots of valuable info.

When I look at the financial aid section of  any Common Data Set, I’m interested in finding out these sorts of things:

  • Average financial aid package.
  • Percentage of financial need met.
  • Average institutional need-based scholarship or grant.
  • Average need-based loan.
  • Average non-need-based scholarships or grants for affluent students, who don’t require need based financial aid.
  • The number of students who receive need-based or merit aid.

Macalester College’s Financial Aid Stats

At Macalester, 400 freshmen were determined to be eligible for aid in the 2009-2010 school year. Of that number, 397 students received need-based grants.

The average financial package was $32,533. That looks very impressive, but you also want to know how much of that comes from grants or scholarships versus loans. In Macalester’s case, like many elite institutions, the vast majority of this aid was free money (grants), which is great. The average grant for those receiving financial aid was $28,280. The average need-based loan that students received was $2,909. Students also cut their cost with work-study jobs.

When looking at financial aid awards, you obviously also need to know what the cost of the school is. During the 2009-2010 year, Macalester’s tuition, fees and room and board added up to $49,124.

I also like to see whether a school gives merit awards to students who are wealthy and won’t qualify for need-based aid. You can find this information in H2A. At Macalester, the average institutional scholarship for these affluent students was $10,000. Only 29 wealthy students, however, received a merit award from the school.

Macalester’s Common Data Set clearly shows that this is a school that dispenses most of its institutional awards to students who truly need a helping hand. This practice is common among elite schools. In fact, the most selective schools — such as Ivy League institutions — don’t provide any merit money to wealthy students.

Bottom Line:

When evaluating any college or university, I’d download a copy of its Common Data Set to learn far more about the school’s financial practices than you’d ever get from an admission officer.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for and US News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter.

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