Lindsey Mackney's choice of colleges came down to two very different places: Boston University, with its urban appeal and lively youth culture, or Allegheny College, a small, friendly liberal arts institution here in the rolling hills of northwest Pennsylvania.
In the end, Mackney said, the decision was simple. Boston, where tuition is $31,530 a year, offered her no financial aid, while Allegheny awarded her a $50,000 merit scholarship, or $12,500 a year. That's nearly a 50 percent discount of Allegheny's $26,650 tuition.
Squeezed on one side by state universities, whose tuition is a tiny fraction of what private colleges charge, and on the other by elite private institutions like Yale, Princeton or Amherst, private liberal arts colleges like Allegheny are routinely offering merit aid to students these days. Such scholarships are particularly pervasive in the Midwest, where many liberal arts colleges award them to as much as half or three-quarters of their students.
The grants are not based on the traditional rationale of a family's financial need, but on academic achievement and the desire of colleges that are not among the nation's most prestigious to recruit high-achieving students. Sometimes, too, less-elite colleges award merit aid simply to fill their freshman classes.
Although I plan to have saved up enough to attend any college I want, I also plan to shop smart. I hope I can find a number of good colleges I want to attend and then choose on a variety of factors to go to the one that best suits me. Starting to save early, however, will give me a lot more choices so that money doesn't have to be the only factor I consider.