Full pay as a college strategy

happy high school student

While many families are looking for ways to reduce the cost of college, a new strategy has emerged that actually seeks to pay the full amount for college.


The ability to pay the full sticker price can make families more attractive to schools, and thus increase their chances of getting accepted.


According to Jeff Selingo, the percentage of full-pay students (defined as those who receive no institutional aid) at the top 150 liberal arts colleges has fallen overall from 22 percent to 16 percent since 2012. The decline has been most severe for institutions ranked 51-100 by US News, which went from having 15 percent of students as full pay in 2012, down to 3 percent in 2022. According to Selingo, 89 percent of all full pay students attending a liberal arts college go to one ranked in the US News top 50. 

percent of students who are full pay

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While paying the full sticker price likely doesn’t hurt one’s chances of being admitted to the most highly selective schools, it isn’t a strategy by itself and other elements are needed for an applicant to stand out. However, it is an interesting strategy for colleges outside of the US News top 50. 


The goal of any college search should be “right fit,” not “highest ranked,” so we only cite these rankings for the purposes of identifying types of schools that are more selective in their admissions but where being a full pay student could be an advantage. Most of these schools are tuition dependent and need all the revenue they can get.


That is not to suggest that a student with a GPA and test scores far below the average admission criteria would be admitted only because he or she is full pay. But in a world of holistic admissions, it could be a meaningful difference for students on the bubble.