A high school student’s College List is the set of institutions to which they’ll apply in senior year. They are colleges that that students determine are exceptionally well suited to their needs, goals, financial circumstances, talents, and preferences. A strong College List is indispensable to the success of a student’s admissions campaign.

Most college admissions experts recommend that a student’s College List have eight-to-twelve schools on it, all of which are schools that the student would be happy to attend. The schools are usually divided into three categories, as follows.

  1. Colleges that the student aspires to attend but at which they have only about a 25% chance of admission based on the academic records of those admitted in the prior year. These are often referred to as Reach or Dream
  1. Colleges to which the student will probably be admitted because their academic record is between 50% and 75% of the applicants admitted in the prior year. These are often referred to as Likely or Target
  1. Colleges to which the applicant is almost certain to be admitted because their academic record is at the top of the academic records of applicants admitted in the prior year. These are often referred to as Safety

The third category, Safety schools is our concern here. Put simply, just because admission to a college is virtually assured doesn’t mean that the student’s family can afford that college. We recommend that every student’s College List include at least one Financial Safety School (FSS). An FSS is a school that the family is certain that they can afford.

Applicants Should Always Submit a FAFSA 

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form completed by prospective and current college students to determine their eligibility for Federal, state, and private financial aid in the form of loans, scholarships, grants, and work-study programs. In any discussion of financial aid, families should note that it’s critically important that all students submit a FAFSA to the U.S. Education Department (ED).

The FAFSA is usually available online from the ED on October 1 for the following academic year. However, this year it won’t be available until December 1, 2023.

Reasons for FSS’s on a College List 

Imagine that a student gets admitted to five of the twelve schools to which he applied: one Reach school, two Likelyschools, and two Safety schools. Unfortunately, they may all be unaffordable for the student unless at least one of them is an FSS.

Families who should include an FSS on the College List fit the descriptions below:

  • The student aspires to attend colleges at which the family cannot afford the Cost of Attendance (COA) with their savings/investments and income.
  • The results of the Net Price Calculator (NPC’s) are unclear on the ability of the family to afford the schools on the College List. At best, NPC’s only provide an estimate. There is no guarantee that the student will actually receive the amount indicated by the NPC. It could be higher or lower.
  • The student has applied for merit scholarships that are awarded to only a small percentage of applicants and the winners aren’t usually notified until spring.
  • The student is relying on colleges to award them at least the average amount in free financial aid (scholarships and grants), as indicated in the Common Data Set.
  • The family is not sure of their future ability to afford a college because their annual income is variable or they expect to have more than one child in college.

Understanding What Constitutes an FSS 

An FSS is a college that the family can afford without relying on financial aid that may or not be awarded or borrowed funds that will overburden the student with debt. Families need to have a good handle on their financial circumstances in order to make the best decisions. They should know:

  • What the family can afford to divert from monthly cash flow.
  • What amount is available from Qualified Tuition Plans, investments, and savings.
  • What will be contributed by grandparents, other relatives, and friends.
  • What the student can contribute from their savings and the income from summer jobs and part-time jobs during the school year.
  • The likelihood of raises, promotions, and bonuses for the parents.

To the yearly total from the sources above, families should add:

  • Known free financial aid in the form of scholarships from all sources.
  • Known free financial aid in the form of grants from governmental entities.

Loans as a Source of Funds for College

Many families need to rely on borrowed funds to cover the costs of college. Taking out student loans is advised only if it can be done without incurring excessive long term debt.

Federal Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans have lower interest rates and better terms than loans from private sector sources such as banks. Subsidized Federal loans are better than Unsubsidized loans in the terms of repayment, but only families who demonstrate financial need on their FAFSA are entitled to them. Most families are eligible for up to a fixed amount in Unsubsidized loans.

How to Identify FSS’s for the College List 

To be an FSS, a college must make known in advance exactly what its net cost of attendance will be. In other words, they’re schools that guarantee a price that can be afforded by the family without financial aid. This doesn’t mean the lowest COA (“sticker price”) carries the day. Far from it! An FSS is defined by a price guaranteed in advance. This means that a family knows that their student can afford the FSS without waiting until spring to receive financial aid offers from colleges that have admitted them.

Below are a few places to look for colleges that may be suitable as an FSS:

  • Public colleges in the student’s home state. This is especially true of campuses other than the flagship campus. The five states with the lowest tuition for in-state students are Florida, Wyoming, North Carolina, Montana, and Utah.
  • Public colleges outside of the student’s home state that have tuition reciprocity agreements with the home state. These agreements substantially reduce undergraduate out-of-state tuition. The Western Undergraduate Exchange is the largest reciprocity program. Ten states participate in it: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, and Nevada.
  • Community colleges usually have more affordable tuition rates than four-year colleges. For public community colleges, the average tuition in 2023 is $4,973 per year for in-state students and $8,692 for out-of-state students.
  • Colleges that guarantee a partial or full scholarship to students who’s academic records meet a certain threshold as measured by their GPA’s and test scores.
  • There are free search features on a number of websites. Some allow affordability parameters to be set by the user. Example include CollegeRaptor, U.S. News, EducationCorner, Niche, CollegeCost (a website maintained by the ED), BigFuture (a website maintained by the College Board), and CollegeConsensus.