Blog College Preparation, Financial Aid

How Private Colleges Make Education Affordable: Better Understanding the North Star Promise

By Elena Nowlin & Kelly Larson on Thursday, January 18, 2024


One of the most frequently searched topics related to higher education is “free college”, because students are looking for opportunities to further their education while limiting their debt. In the state of Minnesota, lawmakers have passed a bill with the promise of a no-cost education. It is important to understand the full picture before making a decision about your college investment.

The North Star Promise Scholarship Program says it “will create a tuition and fee-free pathway to higher education for eligible Minnesota residents at eligible institutions as a ‘last-dollar’ program.” They will offer a chance at college, but only “by covering the balance of tuition and fees after other scholarships, grants, stipends, and tuition waivers have been applied”. This program will cover the remaining tuition for public higher education for students with households with a combined income of $80,000 or less. The grant is also only available up to a certain number of credits and other restrictions.

While some students will consider this their only opportunity for affordable education, it’s important to understand the full picture of costs. In addition to the constraints of the North Star Promise program, families are still required to pay for housing, food, books, and supplies.

When you really add together all costs, a private institution can offer options to families that make the investment more comparable to public colleges and universities. There is also something to say for the “cost-benefit ratio” as it relates to the student experience. Here are a few things to consider when looking at the “free college” option.

Personalized Planning

University of Northwestern (UNW) looks at a student’s education as more than a stop on their way to a full-time career. Getting an education is an investment, and we commit to helping each student find an affordable path forward. The Financial Aid Office works with each student to make sure that they have the best payment plan for their unique needs. UNW sets students up for success by intentionally walking alongside students and their families in the financial aid process, ensuring that they will have an affordable plan that fits their budget.


Second, all traditional undergraduate students receive at least one academic scholarship from UNW upon admission. Students can also take part in a variety of programs on campus like music scholarships, theatre scholarships, honors scholarships, or take advantage of opportunities from individual departments.

Grants and Discounts

Like scholarships, grants are a form of gift aid that does not need to be repaid. In addition to federal and state grants, UNW offers its own need-based grants, grants for international students, and grants for first generation students. We also give Christian Worker Discounts if at least one parents is a full-time missionary or pastor, and a Legacy Discount for children of UNW alums. 

Flexible Student Employment Options

While this may not be ideal for some families, having a student work even as little as five hours a week can lighten the financial investment. Nearly all student positions are flexible to work with class and extracurricular schedules, and several jobs can even be maintained throughout the summer months. Student workers learn skills associated with their job, develop soft skills like communication and time management, and can earn letters of recommendation from their manager. Working as a Teaching Assistant can also provide experience directly related to a student’s desired career.

Dual-Enrollment or Post-Secondary Enrollment Option

Dual Enrollment (DE) or Post-Secondary Enrollment Option (PSEO) helps students earn free college credits while still in high school. Northwestern is the largest provider of PSEO in the state, and also offers more class options than any other private college in the state. These programs help juniors and seniors in high school get a head start on their degree at a significant discount. These students are welcome to participate in on-campus groups, clubs, and activities which greatly improves student engagement.

While cost is an important factor, it’s not the only thing to take into consideration. For example, UNW offers small class sizes with a 15:1 student to professor ratio. This ensures that professors have the bandwidth to know and care for their students in a personal way. In this tight community, someone always knows your name and you will be intentionally cared for academically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally.

While “free college” sounds like a shiny promise, families should be informed on the limitations of the North Star Promise Scholarship, as well as all options of financial aid from private colleges. Also consider the value of student experience when weighing your options. We look forward to coming alongside you as you consider your college options. Contact Financial Aid today!

Updated on January 18, 2024