How the Middle Class Affords College

By Walecia Konrad · July 18, 2023 · 9 minute read

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How the Middle Class Affords College

Middle-class families today don’t make nearly enough money to afford full college tuition. In fact, many qualify for a significant amount of need-based financial aid.

This scenario is so common that some small, private colleges are beginning to “reset” their tuition prices to reflect what students actually end up paying after receiving financial aid, according to a New York Times report in Dec. 2022. For example, New Hampshire private school Colby-Sawyer dropped its published tuition from about $46,000 to $17,500.

Colby-Sawyer and other colleges are acknowledging what many parents and students already know. Plenty of middle-class kids who go to college don’t pay anywhere near the “sticker price.” Keep reading to learn how your family can maximize its financial aid with the help of a resource called the Common Data Set.

Stuck in the Middle

When you look at published tuition numbers, the cost of higher education has been rising at an astonishing pace over the past 20 years. But the amount that students actually pay is less than it was a decade ago, according to the College Board’s Trends in College Pricing report.

For the 2022-23 school year, students enrolled in private nonprofit colleges paid tuition and fees of $14,630 on average. Yet the sticker price for those institutions was much higher: around $39,400. Similarly, in-state tuition and fees at a public four-year college or university averaged $2,250 for 2022-23, compared to the published price of $10,950.

Even discounted college prices are substantial. Coming up with $60,000 for four years at a private college for one child is still a huge burden. Keep in mind that number includes tuition and fees only, not room and board.

Even with grants and other financial aid, many parents can’t afford the cost of college. At the same time, their earnings are too high to qualify for more need-based aid. College savings for kids can also be hampered by parents’ own federal and private student loans and other financial obligations, such as a mortgage or caring for aging grandparents.

If you’re feeling caught in the middle, know that resources are available to help make college tuition more affordable for your family. Here’s what to look for.

The First Step: Understanding Financial Aid

To maximize the amount of tuition help you get, you need to know how and when to apply for financial aid, the different types of aid, and especially how schools award that aid.

Financial aid can come from federal and state governments, colleges, and private organizations. Some help comes in the form of loans, which have to be paid back. Grants, scholarships and work-study programs do not have to be repaid.

Broadly, there are two types of financial aid: need-based and merit. Let’s take a closer look at both.

Need-Based Aid

Need-based aid is money students receive to help pay for college based on their financial situation.

How much need-based aid you get is largely determined by the information you submit on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Aid provided by the state and your college or university is also largely determined by FAFSA information.

Federal need-based aid includes subsidized government loans, Pell Grants, and work-study programs.

Then there’s need-based aid that colleges provide independently of federal financial aid. Many private colleges meet full financial need for admitted students without any loans. This aid is sometimes awarded to families with household incomes well over $100,000. Some colleges come very close to meeting full need, and many colleges will consider requests for more aid from admitted students.

Recommended: FAFSA Guide

How Colleges Calculate Your Need

Most colleges calculate aid based on the information you provide in the FAFSA each year. Factoring in your income and financial obligations, the government calculates your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. (Starting with the 2023-24 academic year, the EFC will be renamed the Student Aid Index, or SAI.)

The EFC (or SAI) is the amount the government formula determines you can afford to pay for one year of college based on parent and student income, assets, number of dependents, number of children in college, and more. After you submit your FAFSA, you’ll see your EFC number in the confirmation email you receive.

Colleges use the EFC as a reference point, but are not obligated to stick to it. The colleges your student is accepted to may determine that your responsibility is higher than the EFC.

But need-based aid isn’t the only game in town. There’s also something called merit aid, or non-need aid, in the mix.

Recommended: FAFSA 101: How to Complete the FAFSA

What Is Merit Aid?

Merit aid consists of grants and scholarships that are awarded based on something other than financial need. It’s often given for academic, athletic, artistic, or other special interests. Merit aid does not need to be paid back, and it may or may not be renewed each year, depending on the award.

As you may guess, merit aid is far more subjective than need-based aid. During your student’s college search, it’s helpful to know these general trends in merit aid.

Which Schools Award Merit Aid?

Private and high-priced colleges usually award more merit aid than public state schools because of their larger endowments. One exception: Ivy League schools do not grant merit aid.

If your student plans to attend a public college or university out of state, you will likely face higher tuition. But attractive candidates may also be awarded more merit aid to help compensate for those extra costs.

Finally, state school honors programs can come with tuition discounts or academic scholarships.

Recommended: How To Get Merit Aid for College

What Is the Common Data Set and How Can You Use It?

One way to dispel the mystery around how colleges award financial aid is to understand the Common Data Set. The CDS is a standard set of data that schools collect about admissions, student demographics, faculty demographics, financial aid, academics, and campus life. Schools send the data to publications and organizations that rank colleges and universities.

The New York Times calls this data a “rich trove” about campus life and college finances. Most schools post their CDS on their website.

Not every school can meet every family’s full need for tuition. That’s where the CDS comes in: It can tell you how much need, on average, a school is able to meet and how many students receive need-based and merit aid. You and your student can then prioritize schools that either meet the most student need or award the most merit aid regardless of need.

How to Find the CDS

Most schools post their CDS data on their website. Often the best way to get to the data quickly is to type the name of the university and “Common Data Set” in your search engine. You’ll likely come up with a link to a PDF.

Try not to be overwhelmed by the length and less-than-reader-friendly format. As you scroll through, you’ll find lots of useful information on all aspects of admissions and campus life. If you’d like to get straight to the information about financial aid, skip to section H2. This will tell you how much need, on average, a school is able to meet and how many students receive all types of financial aid.

Why Some Schools Don’t Want You to See the CDS

You may discover in your search that some schools don’t post their CDS. That can be because they don’t want families to know they got a below-average aid offer, or they don’t want the public to know how many or few people are paying full price.

As efforts continue to encourage full disclosure and diversified, equitable student bodies across the country, the number of schools that don’t post this information is dwindling.

How You Can Fill the Gap

Even as savvy parents exhaust all sources of need-based and merit aid, you may find that you’ll still have to pay for some college costs. Here are some additional resources that may be available.


Scholarships are available for all types of students in virtually every area of study. Scholarship money, which does not have to be paid back, can be found through nonprofit groups, corporations, state governments, and community organizations, to name just a few. Start your search with SoFi’s scholarship search tool.

Federal Grants

•   Pell Grants. You do not have to pay back Pell Grants. They are awarded based on financial need to low-income families.

•   Work-study grants. As the name implies, these grants allow students to work at various part-time jobs at or around campus. You do not pay federal taxes on earnings from work-study programs.

Federal Student Loans

•   Subsidized Direct Loans. The government pays the interest on subsidized loans while you’re in school, during grace periods, and during periods of deferment. Interest rates are usually lower than private student loans, and there is usually a cap on how much you can borrow. You can learn more in our look at subsidized vs. unsubsidized loans.

•   Unsubsidized Direct Loans. These are not awarded based on financial need, but students with need often use them. Because the loan is “unsubsidized,” the principal will accrue interest while you’re in school. You may make interest-only payments during that time, but you’re not required to do so. If you don’t, the interest that accrued is added to the principal amount of your loan.

•   PLUS loans. Direct PLUS loans are fixed-interest rate loans available to parents of undergraduate, graduate, and professional degree students to help pay for tuition. They are not subsidized.

Private Student Loans

Once you’ve exhausted need-based and merit aid, you may find you still have some costs of attendance to cover. That’s where private student loans come in. The details vary, because terms and criteria will depend on the individual lenders and borrowers. SoFi offers no-fee private student loans for a variety of situations. You can find out more in our look at private vs. federal student loans.

The Takeaway

Middle-class families can often feel “caught in the middle” of the college financing situation. They earn too much to qualify for enough need-based aid but not enough to pay for all college costs. To maximize your financial aid award, it helps to know how and when colleges award their aid. First, use the Common Data Set to help you prioritize schools that award more need-based or merit-based aid. Then complete the FAFSA each year your student is in school. Also make sure to search for state and private scholarships that are not tied to the FAFSA.

SoFi private student loans can help families fill the gap between financial aid and the cost of attendance. There are never any fees: no origination fees, no late fees, and no insufficient-funds fees. And the application process takes just 3 minutes online.


What income qualifies for need-based financial aid?

There’s no income cap for financial aid. Your need is determined by information you provide in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) about your assets and financial obligations. Many families making six figures qualify for need-based aid.

Can middle-class families get financial aid?

Absolutely. It’s not unusual for families with annual income above $100,000 to receive financial aid.

Photo credit: iStock/jacoblund

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