Searching for the Unicorn University: The Perfect College for Your Child
By Joe Messinger, CFP®
January 22, 2021
Did you know no actual mythological stories exist about the unicorn? “The truth is, unlike almost every single other mythical creature, the unicorn does not appear anywhere in any culture’s actual mythology.”¹ Was it possible this creature actually existed? And what the heck does this have to do with college?
We’re searching for the Unicorn University—not the myth—the one perfect for you. (Believe it or not there is an actual Unicorn College in Prague, Czech Republic, but we’re not talking about that school here!) We are talking about finding the needle in the haystack of colleges out there who will give you the most financial aid, give your child a great educational experience, and prepare them for success in life! But how can you find this Unicorn University—the one perfect for your child?
Often your search starts with financial realities.
The prospect of paying for college can leave parents feeling helpless. We have talked in previous postings about need-based aid—awarded to families purely based on a formula:
Cost of Attendance (COA) – Expected Family Contribution (EFC) = Demonstrated Financial Need
Need-based aid is becoming harder to receive and is primarily out of our control as parents. The vast majority of families we talk to will not qualify for need-based aid. They have amazing students who have earned the right to go to some of the most prestigious universities in the country, but those schools can cost in excess of $60,000 per year. So the helpless feeling of “what can we do?” takes over. But a very real and attainable type of aid exists for those students who are willing to work to achieve it—merit aid.
Merit aid is money awarded by a university as a reward for academic achievement based on GPA and test scores (ACT/SAT), or a unique skill or talent like music or athletics. Merit aid is true Gift Aid you don’t have to pay back, not some lousy loan. Some schools award more merit aid than others, and some do not award any at all. You need to read the fine print and be aware that some merit aid has limitations:
- Awards with a need-based additional requirement
- Awards targeted to a certain major within the college
- Awards limited to a small number of students
- Awards with a competitive element
These awards are nice if you win them, and you should always apply for them, but the reality is you have very little control over whether your student will receive them.
We encourage families to cast a wider net in order to find their unicorn university. Instead of only looking at the name brand top tier schools, consider the hundreds of great schools that are also competing for the best students and are willing to provide aid to get them. We see excellent students all the time who are accepted to amazing schools like Harvard or Yale, but receive no money because mom and dad are too financially successful. If you have the $250,000 set aside to pay for those schools, congratulations. For the rest of us, recognize that the same student can turn around and get a full ride to a great school like the University of Dayton.
So how can you find the Unicorn University—just right for your budget?
Option 1: Check out these FREE online resources and tools:
- Listing of colleges with the highest percentage of students receiving merit aid from US News & World Report
- College websites will often include merit aid information on their site—sometimes in an easy to understand grid like the University of Miami, Ohio.
- Collegedata.com does a great job of clearly showing the number of freshmen who had no financial need and received merit aid.
Option 2: If you really want to KNOW BEFORE YOU GO, we recommend filling out our College Money Report.
The College Money Report is a fully customized report that demystifies your student’s college financial aid outlook.
Your College Money Report™ gives you answers to 3 critical things every family needs to know before entering the college funding maze:
- How much colleges think you can afford.
- If you will qualify for grants and/or scholarships.
- How much you will be expected to pay out of pocket.
A final few tips:
- Don’t forget graduate school is often part of getting your dream job. Money you save on your undergrad degree can help pay for it!
- Encourage your student to take the most rigorous coursework they can. The amount of rigor is determined by your child—not every child will succeed with a huge plateful of AP courses but have them challenge themselves to do the most they are comfortable with.
- Explore outside testing support if your student struggles with standardized testing. Sometimes spending a little bit of money on a tutor may earn your student a large chunk of money from a college. Do your research when searching for a tutor. Let us know if you need a reference!
- Apply early! Most schools approach aid as a first come first serve process. Don’t miss out on money you could have received if you had applied earlier.
- Contact Capstone with your questions
¹”Unicorn Myths”, www.God-and-Monsters.com
Originally posted – July 2015
Updated – January 2021
September 23, 2022
September 8, 2022