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Why a Reach College May Not Be the Best Fit

High school students often have a “dream” college that they have been planning on attending for many years by the time they graduate. These are usually the nationally known public and private institutions across the country. These schools are considered elite schools that may provide career advantages and bragging rights based simply on having a degree from these institutions. Students may also choose to attend these schools because they are the leading research institutions in their desired area of study after High School. The Ivy League schools, MIT, the University of Chicago, and others across the country have earned this elite status.

Many of these well-known institutions set extremely high admission standards that make enrollment difficult even for students with perfect ACT or SAT scores and high GPAs in high school. Many of these elite schools accept less than 10% of total applicants each year! For example, Harvard University only accepted 5% of its applicants in 2019. (U.S. News & World Report, 2021) Because of high admission standards, having high SAT test scores and a perfect GPA still may not guarantee these schools’ acceptance. These types of schools get named reach schools due to the low rates of accepted applications for even the high achieving students.

Attending these well-known and prestigious schools can often motivate students to strive to achieve better grades and participate in more extracurricular events during high school years to improve their chance of earning admission, even with lower than the average accepted GPA and SAT score levels. Taking multiple ACT or SAT exams to earn a high score is another common strategy students use to improve their chances of admission to their dream school. Students who go the extra step to improve high school grades and test scores will undoubtedly benefit them throughout school and probably their careers if they do or don’t get accepted to these institutions.

Earning an accepted application to one of the reach schools is a great accomplishment, but just one consideration for students and their families during the college selection process. Another important factor with the college selection process in many cases is the cost of attendance. The average Estimated Cost of Attendance with Fees for an Ivy League College for the 2020-2021 school year was $78,417. (Rakoczy, 2021) Most families will need to use some Financial Aid to afford $313,668 on average for a four-year Ivy League degree for their student.

There are two main types of financial aid available to students, need-based and merit-based. Need-based aid is open to all students, and this type of aid is not affected by grades or test scores. Need-based aid is awarded through grants, scholarships, and loans that are available through filling out financial aid forms and are awarded to students based on their family’s ability to pay for college. There is Federal need-based aid, and many public and private institutions may have their own need-based aid in addition to Federal-aid resources. Merit-based aid is financial aid that may be available to students from the institutions that offer the aid in a financial aid package.

There are also merit-based scholarships and grants available outside of financial aid packages. Students usually have to apply for these types of aid outside of the financial aid packages offered by the institutions they are interested in attending. Merit-based aid is not available through the Federal Financial Aid system, and merit-based Financial Aid funds are limited at many public and private institutions across the country. Schools will typically allocate most of the merit-based aid towards the applicants with higher GPAs and test scores. This may lower or could potentially eliminate merit-based aid at certain institutions for students who are “reaching” to attend based on their GPA and test scores.

“Since funds are limited, colleges typically reserve their so-called preferential financial aid packages to the students they really want. If you read marketing materials from colleges, however, you usually won’t get the sense that financial aid is heavily determined by a college’s excitement or lack of enthusiasm for an applicant. Financial aid realities are a topic that admission officers rarely broach with families.” (O’Shugnessy, 2021)

The potential for little or no merit-based aid to help cover education costs could lead to families paying more out of pocket or taking on a larger amount of student loan debt to attend these reach schools. Students may want to consider a backup plan in addition to applying to their reach school.

Consider applying to a few institutions that offer the desired degree and where the student’s GPA and test scores equal or even exceed the school’s average accepted scores. Many public and private institutions across the country accept over two-thirds of applicants annually. There may be a few benefits to at least consider applying to these institutions. First, these schools should significantly increase a student’s chances of getting an admission offer. The second and probably more important benefit is that the student may be awarded a better financial aid package from these schools because their application may stand out compared to the average applicant. Above-average test scores and GPA figures may improve the amount of merit-based aid these institutions offer the student.

The institutions that are not considered reach schools may offer a better financial aid package with merit-based aid to attract your student to attend their school. Merit-based aid may significantly lower the amount the student and family would have to take out in student loans or pay out of pocket. It is a good idea to compare financial aid packages that are offered before deciding which institution the student will choose to attend.


O’Shugnessy, L. (2021, August 20). The Collge Solution. Retrieved from The College Solution website: https://www.thecollegesolution.com/should-you-apply-to-a-reach-school-2/

Rakoczy, C. (2021, July 27). How much does and Ivy League Education Cost? Retrieved from The Balance: https://www.thebalance.com/can-you-afford-an-ivy-league-education-for-your-child-795012

U.S. News & World Report. (2021, August 24). Top 100 – Lowest Acceptance Rates. Retrieved from usnews.com: https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/lowest-acceptance-rate



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