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Not only will you pay less for college, but you could become a campus star.
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Most students know to have one or more safety schools on their list of colleges, just in case they don’t get into their first choices. But it's also smart to pick at least one financial safety school—in case your other colleges don’t come through with enough aid to be affordable.

To find a good financial safety school, first check out the public colleges in your state with admissions standards that match your grades and test scores. Also compare their graduation rates, a key measure of a college’s quality. You can search for public colleges with the best graduation rates for students similar to you at websites like If you’ve earned top grades in high school, look into the public colleges’ honors programs, which often offer extra financial aid.

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Next, consider scholarship-friendly private colleges. They may have much higher sticker prices than the publics, but they typically offer considerably more aid. Your best shots will be at the schools with big merit aid budgets and where you’re in the top 25% of the applicant pool. If your family earns less than $200,000 a year and you have grades and test scores that put you in the top 5% of applicants, you should also try for a few elite schools that offer generous need-based aid. You can screen for those using the premium version of the Money College Planner search tool.

For more advice for college-bound students and their parents, and to create your own customized rankings of colleges based on the factors that are most important to you, check out the new Money College Planner.