College · FIRE

Surprise Benefit of FIRE in Southern Illinois

The main reasons for moving to the Illinois side of Saint Louis were the cost of living and proximity to friendships and family. What I never expected was the possibility that our location would allow for a significantly cheaper college experience for our children.

Illinois is home to a few of the top universities in the world. University of Chicago (9), Northwestern (20), and my alma mater, The University of Illinois (59) are gems of the academic world. You will find another top school across the border, Washington University in St Louis (37).

In high school, I was focused on computer science, and when I got accepted to The University of Illinois, I didn’t look anywhere else. I had never heard of the University of Chicago or Washington in St. Louis. They did not appear in top engineering programs and, therefore, were irrelevant to me. I now know that if your interest is outside of the “hard” sciences, these schools are the cream of the crop.

University of Chicago and Northwestern are private schools in Chicago, about 4.5 hours from where we live. Far enough to prevent constant parent appearances but close enough to return home for long weekends or holidays. Unfortunately, these schools use CSS and not FAFSA for their financial aid. When I did their financial aid calculators, it looked like we would receive about $15,000 in assistance but still need to pay around $70,000 a year in total costs.

University of Illinois

Going to a public university in the state where you live is always beneficial financially. If you live in California, you will save $32,574 a year to attend UCLA compared to out-of-state students. Michigan has a $40,844 annual difference.

Illinois tuition is less expensive, and there is less of a discrepancy. Total costs of attendance are $35,210-$40,474 for in-state and $54,046-$61,872 for out-of-state. Approximately $20,000 in savings. However, the savings don’t have to stop there.

Illinois offers free tuition for first-year students who graduated from an Illinois high school. Your family must have an income under $67,100 and assets under $50,000. The assets requirement nullifies most FIRE families. But Illinois also uses FAFSA, which makes the “Illinois Commitment” ridiculous, as most families that meet these criteria will have an EFC of 0. Using their simple estimator tool, if your EFC is 0, then you will only be expected to pay $11,724 each year.

Washington University in St. Louis

The school commonly referred to as WashU is also known as a “Hidden Ivy.” A private university in the city of St. Louis known for its research and the best dorms in the nation. After learning more about the university, I assumed there would be no way for it to be affordable. Still, it is the most affordable school for residents of St. Louis.

The WashU Pledge provides free undergraduate education to incoming, full-time Missouri and southern Illinois students who are Pell Grant eligible or from families with annual incomes of $75,000 or less.

When I used the school’s net cost calculator, I assumed I needed to fill something out correctly. Our net cost would be $2,500 annually. That was to cover “Miscellaneous Personal Expenses.” Tuition, fees, housing, food, transportation, and books were 100% covered. $76,700 from the WashU Pledge, $7,000 from a Pell Grant, and $2,200 from a scholarship. I was even more surprised because the university uses CSS and shows they would expect a significant parent contribution based on our assets, but the WashU pledge takes priority.


I want my child to see the world and be their own person. But I also want them to avoid starting their adult lives in significant financial debt. If they can attend a top school less than 45 minutes away from literally nothing or my alma mater for only $50,000 for all four years, it will be hard for them to look elsewhere.

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