Best College Deals: In State, Out of State and Beyond

NEW YORK (MainStreet) —While debating whether college was worth it for my high-school senior, and freaking out over the sticker-shock of college pricing, I began to get advice about other ways to save on college even without financial aid. It came from fellow parents via that most reliable source of information of contemporary times…er, Facebook.

Think In State

“We went through this process last year for our eldest daughter Abby,” wrote Wendy Cheng of Gaithersburg, Maryland—whose post garnered an instant "like." After earning acceptance from all four colleges she applied to, Abby chose to go her state flagship school, the University of Maryland at College Park. “UMD did not offer her anything in terms of merit aid,” Wendy wrote, “but we did save some money by her not going out of state or attending private colleges.”

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Actually, as I soon discovered, the Cheng family hit the trifecta in terms of getting a deal on college by choosing a school that was 1) public 2) in state and 3) on the list of the “Best Value” schools in America. According to Kiplinger's Best Values in Public Colleges list, UMD comes in at number five (Kiplinger’s lists are based on data by Petersons.com)

Go Public

Choosing a public college over a private one can, in general, save several thousand dollars, because the price of tuition is subsidized. This is made obvious by the nearly $8,000 difference between the most expensive public college in Kiplinger’s top 100 (University of California, Santa Cruz, price-tag: $52,557) and the most expensive one on its private list (New York University, price-tag: $60,407 per year.) It’s also supported by the National Center for Education Statistics, which shows the average annual price for public colleges is over $18,000 cheaper than the average price of private ones.

Plus, if you choose a public college in your own state you get, on average, an additional break of more than $8,000 because you have, in a sense, already been paying for it. Added together, these savings can be immense. The least expensive in-state price for a public college on Kiplinger’s list is only $11,760 at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma. Compared to NYU again (full-disclosure: my esteemed and expensive alma mater), that’s a savings of almost $50,000! Of course, real estate no doubt plays a part since we’re comparing Manhattan to Chickasha. But even staying in the Big Apple, you can save over $40k by choosing the public-financed City University of New York (CUNY).

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For the Cheng family, who diligently saved for college using a 529 account, the difference in price meant the ability to afford two to four years at a state university vs. one year at a private one. Luckily, the Chengs also found a great school nearby that was Abby’s first choice.

Aim Abroad

But some kids want to go farther from home, eliminating the in-state option. I followed up with another parent and long-time Facebook friend, Abigail Wolff of New York, NY, whose daughter Isabella chose to go not only out-of-state, but out-of-country. “She really loved the idea of going to a foreign university,” Wolff wrote, “and seriously considered, St. Andrews in Scotland, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow, and Trinity, Dublin.”

Using Peterson’s Guide to Four-Year Colleges, Isabella found one a bit closer to home but still across the border: McGill University in Montreal. “Now the U.S. dollar is approximately 1:1 with the Canadian dollar,” Wolff said. “But it was a bit of a better buy when she matriculated at McGill in 2010. I believe it costs us about 3/5 of what one pays for a U.S. college education, although there really is not much, if any, scholarship help there.” Again, saving bucks while sending the young scholars to the school of their choice is a win/win for both parents and kids.

Get Crafty

Here in the states, there remain deals to be had even at well-known private institutions. Topping Kiplinger’s “Best Value” list of private schools is—surprisingly—Yale. But that’s definitely not due to the annual $52,700 price of tuition when the national average for private schools is $21,949. It’s due to a number of other factors including the high average amount of financial aid ($38,914), low student-to-faculty ratio (5), and the fact that it is, well, Yale. Based on tuition alone, the lowest priced “Best Value” on the list is Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah with a sticker price of $17,552.

If your teen wants college but doesn’t desire Ivy League-level schools, you can shop on price alone and drive the price of tuition down even further. The Department of Education College Affordability and Transparency Center generates reports based on your selected criteria and reveals the lowest-priced tuition in the U.S. is only $910 at the private Berea College in Kentucky, and even almost half that ($430) at that lowest-priced public school: Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas. Combine that tuition bargain with letting your scholar live at home for free, and your kid could get a degree for the nearly the price of a daily coffee.

Guess college is affordable after all--if you look in the right places. And if not, take another look at the public colleges nearby; your taxes already paid for it. Now just imagine what I deals I could find if I learned how to tweet.

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