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University Generosity Bracketology

There’s nothing quite like March Madness. To me, the sports fan, it’s without question the most exciting event of the year. Nearly every game comes down to the wire, leaving fans breathless and exhausted. It’s great – even for the most casual observer. But for me, the college counselor, it’s perfection.

For the past 17 years, the annual NCAA tournament has given me a chance to geek out and make picks based on a financial aid/institutional scholarship formula (a ‘University Generosity’ algorithm, if you will) that I’ve been keeping data on and tweaking for years. Now, full disclosure, you’re not likely to win your office pool with my picks, but it very well could pay off in the best possible way when it comes to your college tuition bills. Here’s how:

True, college is undeniably uber-expensive…on paper. The cost of attendance has been growing exponentially for years. Just 17 years ago when I first got started with this, the most expensive colleges cost about $56,000 all in; today those same schools (and quite a few others) have published cost of attendance north of $90K. Now before you hyperventilate, here’s the good news: very, very few people are expected to pay the full cost of attendance. 

So, today’s tip:

IGNORE the sticker prices! The published prices are not the prices you should be paying. In fact, more than 2/3 of full-time, first year college students pay LESS than the sticker price.  A lot less – the average discount rate, which is the list price less need-based and merit-based aid is at a whopping 56% (which is an all time high).  

Colleges discount!! All of them. Just not for the same reasons, or to the same extent. Fact is – some colleges are more generous than others! Full stop. Colleges have two main instruments when it comes to their discounting strategies:  1) need-based Aid and  2) merit-based (or non-need based) Aid.  Most schools utilize both tools — though certainly not in equal measure — to induce students to attend their institution.  Without a doubt, the largest source of free money is in need-based Aid (more than $150 billion worth – yes, I said billion).  It is a legitimate source of college savings for forgotten middle and upper middle class families (six figure earners), and choosing schools that offer substantial need-based grants is a critical component of my March Madness formula — and it certainly should factor into your Admissions strategy.   

It’s my experience that most families don’t really know this and certainly don’t know how to determine which colleges will be ‘generous’ with them and for what reasons, or how to determine what % of that published cost of attendance they’ll be expected to bear (hint: this is a manageable number), or even how to apply for financial aid (actually 7 out of 10 don’t even know where to begin), much less understand the rules of the game. And, in this case what you don’t know can hurt you.

So, by analyzing the Men’s bracket and comparing the historical ‘generosity behavior’ of the colleges using my unique formula, I’m not only giving you a chance at an ‘out-of-the-box’ strategy to bust your family’s or company’s pool, but I’m also giving some invaluable insight into how schools in the tournament address and award financial aid and scholarships.

I’m not going to get into the intimate details of my secret sauce, but we focus on the financial aid generosity levels of each school, as well as average net cost. As I mentioned, most families who are “shopping” for college have little idea how much they should eventually pay because: 1. They don’t know their Student Aid Index (SAI); and 2. They’re not aware of the generosity history at the schools on their list. Knowing these two facts can help you pretty accurately ballpark your eventual NET annual expense per each school you’re considering. (Note: if you have any questions about the generosity of the schools on your list, please feel free to ask – with the right information, I can provide you with an accurate projection).

But for now, let’s break down this year’s bracket:

1. The East Bracket is loaded with generous schools: There are several gems in this quarter of the bracket, including Ivy League champion Yale, which statistically may be the most generous school in the entire field. Northwestern also meets 100%. Even lowly Stetson, seeded 16 and a first-time entrant to the Big Dance, meets 90% of demonstrated need so I have them over universal favorite and 5 time NCAA Men’s Champion (and defending champ) UConn. BYU may only meet 35% of need, but their very low sticker price gives them big points and makes them much more affordable.

2. Dayton is always a good Flyer: Not only does Dayton have a great basketball tradition and a strong aerospace program, but they’re pretty good at financial aid, too (89% of demonstrated need). They face a financially stingy Nevada (56% of demonstrated need), and then face off against Arizona, a basketball powerhouse that only meets 64%. What’s worse about Arizona, their average net price is $17,202 – quite high for a state school. I’m taking the Flyers.

3. Western Kentucky has no chance: This school is the financial aid doormat in this year’s bracket, meeting only 24% of demonstrated need. That’s abysmal, so don’t think twice about selecting 2-seeded Marquette to top the Hilltoppers.

4. St. Peter’s is my favorite Cinderella: This school shocked the nation two years ago with their improbable run, defeating powerhouse Kentucky in the first round (I also picked them then, when they were also a 15 seed) en route to an eventual Elite 8 defeat against financially generous (100%) UNC-Chapel Hill. More importantly, they not only meet 88% of demonstrated need but they also boast an average net price of only $12,937 per year! That’s astoundingly low for a private university. Can the Peacocks spread their feathers once again? I’ll take them over Tennessee.

5. How about them Gators? Before you accuse me of being a brown noser and trying to ingratiate myself with my local readers, you should know that UF meets 98% of demonstrated need, and their average net price is only $9,809. Sure, most of their discounting comes from the Bright Futures scholarship, which is actually state merit aid and is funded by our collective Florida Lottery addiction. But I cannot turn away from those numbers – in the State University category, only UNC and UVA can boast higher generosity levels. So I’ll take the Gators to advance all the way to the Elite 8, where they will run into powerhouse Duke, a school with great basketball and financial aid tradition.

Take a look at my 2024 University Generosity Bracketology below. Spoiler Alert: My Final Four includes Yale, Duke, UNC and…St. Peter’s.

Let the Madness begin!


P.S. If you want to understand University Generosity specific to your family’s financial situation, feel free to connect with us and let’s take a closer look.

P.P.S. Important Disclaimer – I take no responsibility for your own personal bracket. Make your selections at your own peril! My university generosity picks have nothing, and I mean nothing, to do with the game of basketball, so please don’t blame me if your selections fail. I grew up playing basketball and know a thing or two about the game. But I also know that the winners of these bracket pools often end up being people who select teams because of the nicknames, the school colors, the weather, or they have friends who went to a certain school. Two years ago, the winner of my family’s pool was a big Wizard of Oz fan. Since Dorothy hailed from Kansas, she chose Kansas for that very reason, and the rest is history. Doesn’t seem like a winning formula, but that’s what makes March Madness fun, right?

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