Going outside California to find an excellent and affordable college education

It seems so counterintuitive. How can it be cheaper for a California family to send their cherubs off to college in another state when they could pay discounted in-state tuition here?

Because, experts say, there is more to a college sticker price than meets the eye. In fact, the College Board urges students to refrain from ruling out “expensive colleges.”

“A college that charges a lot for tuition might offer you generous financial aid,” the nonprofit resource for all things higher education notes on its website. “It might even be more affordable than colleges that charge lower tuition. So think about net price, not published price — and don’t be afraid to apply to colleges you think you can’t afford."

Paying tuition … and then some

Grand Canyon University in Phoenix is a case in point. Tuition for the academic year at the private Christian college is $16,500, but the average student pays $7,800 per year after scholarships and institutional aid are factored in. The college also has an average room and board cost of $6,500, which, like the tuition, hasn’t changed since 2009.

“It can end up costing someone from California less to come here than it would cost to go to a state school there,” said Sophia Zaft, Grand Canyon University’s senior media relations manager.

State officials say that when pitting public universities in California against public universities elsewhere, California has the edge. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine ranked UCLA the fifth best value public university in the nation with a total per year cost of $28,852 — or $11,483 after need-based financial aid — and an average debt of $20,409 at graduation. UC Berkeley was No. 9 at $29,280, or $12,651 after need-based financial aid. Average debt after graduation is $17,964.

The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, took the top spot on Kiplinger’s best value rankings.

Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of the higher education information service Edvisors Network, said that after several years of tuition and fee hikes at California colleges, it can be more economical for some to study elsewhere. And that can even include such institutions as Harvard and Yale.

Optimizing financial aid

Kantrowitz noted there are some six dozen colleges in the country with no-loan financial aid policies, including every Ivy League campus. Yale University’s financial aid packages require no parent contribution for families earning less than $65,000 annually and limit the parent contribution to no more than 10% of income for families earning less than $130,000 a year. That means a student from a family with a combined income of $130,000 will pay no more than $13,000 per year to attend the prestigious school, and any financial aid will come sans student loans that have to be repaid.

Harvard expects lower-income families to pay nothing. And Amherst College, where tuition, room and board cost nearly $58,000 per year, provided more than $45 million in scholarship aid to about 60% of its students this year. The average financial aid award was just under $47,000.

Most college students receive some kind of financial aid, be it loans, scholarships, grants or work-study programs. A student borrowing $19,000 over four years on a federally subsidized loan would end up paying almost $22,500 with interest, leading to monthly payments of $186 over 10 years, according to the College Board’s Student Loan Calculator.

Financial aid is awarded not only to lower-income students. “Colleges will give financial aid not just based on financial need but as a recruiting tool,” Kantrowitz said.

Why? One reason is that colleges want top-level students to raise the profile of their incoming freshman class. “If you’re able to recruit some students who are at the top academically, you’re benefitting all your students,” Kantrowitz said.

Factoring in the basic costs

Tuition, fees and room and board aren’t the only costs, though.

According to the College Board, the average yearly estimate for books and supplies at a four-year public college is about $1,200. You can lower the cost, however, by buying used textbooks or renting. Then there are the personal expenses, such as doing laundry, cell phone bills and transportation costs. All of these can add up. In a hurry.

Myra Smith, executive director of financial aid services for the College Board, notes on the nonprofit’s website that families should be “doing their homework early on and reading everything that a school has out about their costs.”

Shopping around

Often overlooked when families do their homework are two-year colleges, which can offer guaranteed admission to a four-year university if certain criteria are met — and at a lower cost than spending all four years at a traditional college. “If you think about the community colleges, California is going to be your cheapest option,” Kantrowitz said.

But the best bargains may not be limited to the United States. “Sometimes it can cost you less to go overseas,” Kantrowitz said.

The bottom line: “It’s worth shopping around.”

David Ogul, Brand Publishing Writer

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