Private colleges can be a lot more affordable than you may think, but it helps to plan ahead. Here are some steps to consider.

1. Start saving for college

The sooner you start saving the better but it's never too late to begin. One way to save money is through what’s called a 529 plan, which provides tax savings while you make contributions and when you use the money to pay for college. There are many 529 plans available; Minnesota offers its own College Savings Plan that can be opened for a child of any age.

2. Keep all options open

Minnesota private colleges offer wide variety of choices, and one of them may be a great fit for you or your student — and affordable. Thanks to financial aid, the average amount that families pay for tuition is considerably less than the posted price. Consider these points:

  • After grants and scholarships the average amount that first-year students actually pay for tuition is cut by 69 percent compared to listed tuition.
    • The average net tuition for first-year students is $13,591 because first-year students receive an average of $29,552 in institutional, state and federal grants.
    • For first-year students from families with incomes below $50,000, average grants cover 94 percent of tuition. The average net tuition for these students after institutional, federal and state grants is $2,500. These students receive an average of more than $36,800 in grants.
  • 96 percent of first-year students at our colleges receive grants and scholarships — financial aid that never has to be paid back.
  • Get an early estimate of the types and amount of aid you or your student might be eligible to receive by using the net price calculator on each college's website.

3. Find out more about financial aid at colleges of interest

Financial aid offices at our institutions want to help. Don't hesitate to contact them to find out what type of scholarships or other aid are available. You’ll also find help in the financial aid and admission sections of their websites. Many of our colleges require a financial aid application, so make note of those deadlines.

Another option is to attend a financial aid night at your local high school.

4. Search for private scholarships

Many different types of independent scholarships are awarded according to some criteria such as academic or athletic achievement, cultural or religious background, service, etc. You’ll find many private scholarship opportunities on these sites:

Learn how to recognize a predatory financial aid search company.

5. Complete the FAFSA

All students should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form (FAFSA). It is used to determine eligibility for institutional need-based grants, Federal Pell Grant awards and Minnesota State Grant awards. Completing the FAFSA is also required for students and families interested in federal loans or work study.

The application can be completed starting in October of a high school student’s senior year in high school. Completing the FAFSA can take some time and requires several pieces of information, including up-to-date financial information from a parent or a family’s tax forms from the previous year. The federal government helps sum up the process with a helpful graphic and provides answers on what to expect.

For families in Minnesota seeking more support, check out the FAFSA completion events and other resources through Minnesota Goes to College, a collaboration that Minnesota private colleges support.

Each college has a financial aid application deadline, but you have plenty of time after the FAFSA opens up to fill it out. After the FAFSA is submitted, colleges and universities will use this information to prepare a financial aid offer that combines grants and scholarships from federal, state, school and institutional sources with loans and student employment.

And remember, if you’re looking for an earlier estimate, families can use colleges’ net price calculators.

6. Compare financial aid offers

Colleges send out financial aid award offers to applicants. Once you know how much financial aid each is offering, the next step is to review and compare the financial aid packages. Each award letter is a little bit different — and not just in terms of the amount of aid offered — so it’s helpful to compare each offer side by side by creating a chart or spreadsheet. Here’s one way to do it:

  • Cost of attendance: This includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, personal expenses and transportation.
    • Note if there are any college-specific fees not listed that you need to factor in as well as if the student will be charged a comprehensive tuition rate if they take a specific number of credits or if they are charged a per credit rate.
  • Grants and scholarships: Grants typically comes from state and federal governments in the form of need-based aid or from the institution itself, where the aid may be need- or merit-based. Scholarships mostly come from the institution or other private sources.
    • Note if the aid requires the student to enroll for a minimum number of credits or if the aid is renewable and, if so, what that process is.
  • Work study: Some colleges will place students in on-campus jobs while others require students to find a job themselves.
    • Find out what the average hourly wage is for work-study jobs. This will help you estimate how many hours the student may need to work during a week to earn enough to cover expenses. Also ask what the average first-year student earns in a year.
  • Loans: Families should note whether the student loan amount is subsidized or unsubsidized.
    • Note whether expected parent loans, such as the PLUS loan, are also listed to cover the cost of attendance.

Once you’ve compared and contrasted the aid packages, factor in which college is the right fit — because it won’t matter if the college is cheaper or offered more aid if your student is likely to struggle or is miserable there. Re-identify what is most important in a college and then weigh that against what you are expected to pay.