By Jeff Levy, IECA (CA)

What information do independent educational consultants (IECs) need to know before advising families about college affordability? One piece of the puzzle is understanding the average percent of need met by an institution. For families that can demonstrate a moderate to significant amount of need, finding colleges that meet that need is crucial. Another piece of the puzzle is learning which schools are generous with merit aid, which is indispensable for those families without demonstrated need but for whom the sticker price at most private colleges is unaffordable.

Consider this need-eligible family with two dependent children, whose older parent is 45, and whose average income is at least twice the national household median:

Adjusted Gross Income $125,000
Total Assets (excluding home) $ 75,000
Home equity$150,000

• At schools that only use the FAFSA and ignore home equity in the principal residence, this family will have an approximate Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of $27,335.

• At schools that use both the FAFSA and the CSS PROFILE and that do consider home equity in the principal residence, their EFC will increase to approximately $34,475.

It will be nearly impossible for this moderate-need family to meet its EFC, especially if they are saving for the younger child’s future education. And what will happen to them at schools that don’t meet close to full need, such as NYU which meets 60% of need for its undergraduates? That would add an additional $15,370 each year in unmet need on top of the family’s already exorbitant EFC. Therefore, it becomes crucial for us as IECs to get an early read on families’ financial profiles and to match those families who have moderate to substantial need with schools that meet all or most of that need. If we don’t, we unwisely direct them toward institutions that will saddle them with excessive debt or toward less-vibrant institutions simply for their low sticker prices.

Assisting Merit Aid Families

Many of the families that IECs work with qualify for little, if any, need-based aid but may still find a $65,000 sticker price unaffordable. Consider this family with two dependent children where the older parent is 45:

Adjusted Gross Income $225,000
Total Assets (excluding home) $125,000
Home equity$250,000

• At schools that only use the FAFSA and ignore home equity in the principle residence, this family will have an approximate EFC of $61,100 and will most likely qualify for federal student loans only.

• At schools that use both the FAFSA and the CSS PROFILE and that do consider home equity in the principle residence, their EFC will increase to approximately $72,920, making them ineligible for need-based aid.

It is crucial that the list of colleges an IEC recommends to this family include many where the student will be a competitive applicant and where merit aid is generously offered. In evaluating merit generosity, the two most important criteria to look at are the average size of the merit award and the percent of non-need undergraduates receiving that form of aid. If a school’s average merit award is $22,000, for example, and 30% of non-need undergraduates receive merit aid, as is the case at the University of Richmond, it is safe to say that the institution is generous with merit aid. But if a school’s average merit award is also $22,000 but only 4% of undergraduates receive it, as is the case at Boston College, clearly the probability of receiving merit becomes extremely low.

Finding Affordable Schools That Meet Students’ Profiles

This past August, Jennie Kent (Bogota, Colombia) and I released three spreadsheets, two of which we have been sharing with the counseling and admissions community for the past two years. The chart making its debut this year is Domestic Need-Based Aid and Merit Aid. It provides all the important data IECs need to evaluate an institution’s affordability in a simple Google sheet format. Jennie and I invite you to view and download this chart (along with Early Decision vs. Regular Decision Acceptance Rates and Financial Aid for Nonresident Alien Undergraduates) from our websites at and Once downloaded, you will be able to sort the 420 institutions by the following categories:

• Name of institution
• Cost of attendance
• Total undergraduates
• Average percent of need met for all undergraduates
• Percent of non-need undergraduates receiving merit aid
• Average merit aid award
• Needs methodology (federal, institutional, or both).

If you sort within our chart for average percentage of need met, you will find hidden gems–more than 90 schools that:

• Meet at least 90% of need
• Range in undergraduate population from 343 (Olin) to 33,000 (University of Florida, which meets 90% of need for in-state only)
• Range in acceptance rates from 5% (Stanford) to 60–70% or more (Allegheny, Kalamazoo, and Loyola Maryland for example)

If instead you sort for schools that are generous with merit aid, you will find a treasure trove of schools that award substantial merit aid to a sizable percentage of their undergraduates without need. Why do I specify without need? There is an argument that no wall exists between need-based institutional grants and non-need, nonathletic institutional grants, that it all comes out of the same pot, and that strong applicants with demonstrated need will receive additional merit aid to cover any gap in their need-based award at many schools. However, the Common Data Set methodology considers institutional grants awarded to meet any portion of need as need-based aid, not merit aid. So, the more accurate way of assessing an institution’s generosity with respect to merit aid is to look at two things: the average size of the award and the percent of non-need students receiving merit.

In sorting our 420 schools for those metrics, we see very heartening results:

• 108 schools that award at least $15,000 annually in merit aid
• 177 schools where at least 30% of non-need undergraduates receive merit aid
• 78 schools that satisfy both criteria: an average annual merit award of at least $15,000 and where at least 30% of non-need undergraduates receive it

There was a time when IECs were reluctant to become knowledgeable about affordability. School-based counselors may have found it difficult to get a snapshot of the family’s finances, and many IECs were working with families for whom affordability was not a pressing concern, for whom in the pre-2008 days refinancing one’s home or taking out a home equity line of credit was easy and foolproof. Plus, many counselors and IECs believed that the subject was beyond their skill set, impossible for them to master. Some even inflated that belief to a principle that college advisors should never advise families on college affordability. But with the cost of college continuing to rise, even our public institutions becoming unaffordable and hopelessly selective, borrowing becoming increasingly difficult and often ill-advised, we IECs need to become very good at suggesting schools that are responsible financial choices for our families. We hope this chart makes your job easier and a little more fun.

Jeff Levy, Personal College Admissions, can be reached at [email protected].


  1. This information is exactly what I’ve been looking for! I am also hesitant to delve into the financial aspect of choosing colleges, but I’m guessing that this spreadsheet will help build my confidence. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. Jeff,
    I am so fortunate to call you a colleague. Your collegial sharing here is marvelous and so appreciated. Let’s get out there and help make college affordable for our families!
    -Dr. Erin Avery, CEP

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