Cutting the Cost of College by 49%

When you are looking at colleges, don’t believe the sticker price.
Why? Because college are priced like airline tickets. Everybody pays a different fare. When I give talks to families with teenagers, that’s one of the first points that I emphasize. It’s your job then to find colleges and universities that are not only great academic fits, but also financial fits. And nothing can make a school more affordable than snagging a price cut.
More students capture price discounts through college grants than you might assume. The latest annual survey of the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) illustrates just how widespread price cuts are among private schools. Freshmen starting at a private college or university in 2009 typically received a 48.5% tuition discount. NACUBO estimates that freshmen, who began school last fall, received a slightly bigger tuition break of 49.1%.
Here’s an example of how tuition discounts work: Let’s say the tuition is $30,000 and a student received the equivalent of a 49.1% price break. In this case, the student got a grant (free money) from the school for $14,730. Over four years, this award would be worth $58,920.

Getting a Discount Isn’t Tough

You shouldn’t assume that only students with the most stellar academic credentials get this money. According to the NACUBO study, nearly 88% of freshmen attending private schools received institutional grants, which is a historic high. I’d hate to be among the 12% of freshmen who ended up empty-handed when the grants were being distributed.
What you may also find interesting is that a big chunk of this money goes to students who don’t need the help. Nearly 29% of the college grants were awarded to affluent students who did not qualify for any need-based aid.
Many colleges and universities give price cuts to rich students because these teens are among the most highly desirable ones. As a group, these students are more likely to have attended top public and private high schools that have prepared them well for college. These students are also more likely to have earned higher GPAs and test scores, which count in U.S. News‘s college rankings system. Once in college, they are also more likely to graduate in four years.

Rich Kid Exception

There are, however, some notable exceptions to the rich-kids-get-money scenario. The wealthiest and most prestigious schools in the country—including the Ivy League institutions and the very top liberal arts colleges, as ranked by U.S. News—don’t provide grants to rich students. As a practical matter, these elite schools don’t have to use price discounts since wealthy families are flocking to these schools without them. Rich schools say they are reserving their money for needy students, but as a practical matter most  of these schools don’t accept many low-income kids.
Here’s a couple of posts that I’ve written about this phenomenon:
Rich Universities That Snub the Poor
Nation’s 15 Richest and Stingiest Colleges

Why Colleges Discount

The practice of discounting might seem puzzling to you. Why not just charge a lower price and skip the price breaks? One of the reasons why colleges don’t revert to this approach is because families assume that schools that cost more must provide a better education. When you are shopping for a car, which do you think is the superior vehicle: Mercedes-Benz CLS-Class or the subcompact Chevrolet Aveo?
For you, the most important question will be this one: Will my child get price breaks from colleges on his or her list? The great news is that answering this question will soon be easier than it’s ever been. Beginning in late October, all colleges and universities must begin posting cost calculators on their websites—and many of them already have these calculators in place.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and a workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College. She also blogs for CBSMoneyWatch and US News. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. Lynn,
    A comment and a question:
    I wish everyone would stop referring to families who don’t qualify for financial aid as “rich.” We live in what many would call an “affluent” suburb, yet we and everyone we know is desperate for “merit” grants to avoid huge loans for our kids. The “expected family contribution” will quickly spend through our retirement savings.
    And the question: our son, a high school junior, is interested in studying physics in college. With no merit aid offered by schools like Cornell U. or Swarthmore, his choices seem to be between our large state university, which might not be a good personal fit for him, or some small liberal arts schools with generous merit aid but small and little known physics departments. How can we evaluate the strength of small college physics programs, and how can we guess the consequences for his success in post-college physics opportunities?