The top U.S. colleges and universities are often members of the Ivy League, that association of top-notch schools that only accept the best and brightest, offer an educational experience to die for, and encourage students to forge relationships that last a lifetime. They are also pricey: Princeton and Harvard, for example, charge tuition and fees of more than $40,000 per year -- and that’s not counting room, board, and other incidentals, like books.

With price points that high, is it really worthwhile for the average person to consider attending these venerable institutions of higher learning? For the most part, the answer is yes. While these schools are not for everyone, most represent a real educational value -- and offer generous aid packages that can enable those of less comfortable means to attend without the onus of heavy post-graduation debt.

Once admitted, financial aid is practically guaranteed
Ivy League schools are tough to get into, and offer a rigorous academic experience. For those with the chops, however, money should be no object. Members of the Ivy League have need-blind admissions policies, and do not consider ability to pay when making decisions on applicants.

Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., for example, awards an average of $44,000 to 60% of its student population. The school actually has a kind of sliding fee scale: Families that make less than $65,000 annually are not expected to kick in any costs whatever, while those that make between $65,000 and $150,000 per year may pay up to 10% of costs. For those who earn $150,000 or more, the costs will be proportionally higher. The school proudly proclaims that “100% of our students can graduate debt-free."

Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., was the first to offer need-based aid packages that excluded loans, and echoing the policy at Harvard, students from families earning $65,000 or less aren’t expected to pay a dime at Yale University in New Haven, Conn. Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., is also committed to meeting 100% of financial need; the average scholarship for those entering last fall was $42,000.

While each of the eight members of the Ivy League offer an outstanding education, Dartmouth also has an exceptionally high four-year graduation rate for its bachelor’s programs and offers a very high return on investment, as well.

The other four schools -- Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania -- have similarly substantial aid programs, and each merits consideration as much as the ones listed above. Though a college education can be expensive, there is no reason to exclude Ivy League schools from your list because of cost. Harvard notes that the cost of attendance for 90% of students and their families is the same -- or less -- than for any state school. That certainly sounds like a bargain to me.