The Most Affordable Colleges For Low-Income Students

Fans at Cameron Indoor Arena at Duke University. Courtesy photo

The nation’s most prestigious colleges may actually be the most affordable for low-income students, a new study finds.

The study, by HeyTutor, found that among private four-year institutions, almost 90% of students are awarded some level of financial aid.

“Our research shows that students from low-income families should not be discouraged by high sticker prices at selective schools,” Skyler Lucci, founder and CEO of HeyTutor, says. “Often, these schools will be the most affordable option while also providing more educational resources that will better prepare students for the future.”

Prestigious colleges, such as Duke University, Harvard University, Stanford University, and Yale University made it in the top 10 most affordable schools in the country for low-income families.


Researchers analyzed data from the National Center for Education Statistics Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System and only included private, not-for-profit, degree-granting, four-year or above institutions with at least 1,000 undergraduates.

Rather than look at the advertised price, the researchers instead looked at the average net price of attendance, or what students actually pay out of pocket, for students in the lowest income brackets, or $0-$30,000 and $30,001-$48,000.

It’s important to note that the study focuses on net price, which is found by subtracting the average amount of federal, state, local, institutional, and scholarship aid from the total published price of attendance, which includes published tuition and fees, books, supplies, room, board, and other expenses.

Lucci says the hope of the study is to give applicants a better understanding of the financial aid process and what to look for when evaluating their options.  

“As college sticker prices have increased, so has the gap between the published prices and what students actually pay,” Lucci says. “It’s important for families to understand that for many colleges, the prices advertised are not a good indication of what a given student might ultimately pay out of pocket.”


At Duke University, which ranked as the most affordable college for low-income applicants, the school says it’s committed to ensuring that a Duke education remains accessible to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Duke is fortunate to have committed supporters whose generosity have allowed us to improve the university’s accessibility,” Gary G. Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education at Duke, says. “Ensuring that Duke remains affordable is a primary strategic goal and a challenge, given the real and rising costs of delivering transformative undergraduate experiences.”

The university offers more than just financial aid to help reduce the cost of a degree.

Low-income students at Duke have access to additional services such as enrichment programming, mentoring, faculty and staff advising, academic support, and networking services.

Part of the reason why private schools, like Duke, can offer so much to low-income students is their connection to philanthropic donors.

“Like many of our peers, we support undergraduate financial aid primarily through philanthropic sources,” Bennett says. “There are many strategic demands on these resources, but Duke’s leadership has consistently chosen to make investments that improve the accessibility and affordability of our undergraduate experience. We now have the most academically qualified student population in our history, with as many first-generation college students as there are international students.”

Of course, the accessibility issue might come down more to acceptance rates rather than cost. Admissions can be a much larger barrier considering the acceptance rate to get into many of the schools on this list was less than 10% for last fall’s entering class. Stanford, for example, admitted just 4.81% freshmen last fall. Harvard’s rate was 5.4%, Yale was 6.32%, the University of Chicago and MIT were both 7.94%, and the University of Pennsylvania was 9.44%.


The fact of the matter is college is getting increasingly more expensive.

But with the increase in cost, experts say, applicants nowadays are searching for more ways to decrease the out-of-pocket cost.

“Despite tuition fees rising every year, low-income applicants seem to have gotten savvier, and this is what made college education more accessible to them in some cases,” Jill Gonzalez, an analyst at WalletHub, says.

The personal finance company published a study last year that analyzed in-depth how colleges fare in terms of cost, resources, and outcomes. Gonzalez says applicants should be selective about what college they choose to attend and how much debt they hope to accrue.

“Applicants should try to get financial aid and apply for the scholarships they have a better chance of getting,” Gonzalez says. “Students should also be aware that they can attend a community college for the first two years, and then transfer to a four-year institution. This could save them thousands of dollars of debt.”

Despite the growing costs of a higher education degree, Gonzalez says, it’s still worth it in the long run.

“Higher education is one of the best ways a person can invest in their future,” she says. “It’s important for colleges to continue offering financial aid, grants, and scholarships to ensure that low-income applicants get an equal chance to education.”


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