The term "private college" is sometimes a turnoff for college-shoppers because of the institiutions' stratospheric tuition prices. But students and their not-so-deep-pocketed parents should have another look: Most students who attend private colleges across the country are offered financial aid. Often, it's substantial.
"Families should never initially rule out any school because it appears to be too expensive," says Kalman Chany, founder and president of New York-based Campus Consultants and co-author of "Paying for College Without Going Broke."
"If you qualify for aid, it may cost the same amount to attend a school with a $45,000 annual sticker price as a public university for $20,000. It may even be cheaper," he says.
The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities reports that 88 percent of private-school students receive some form of assistance, with an average annual aid package worth $17,000, including institutional, state, federal and private aid.
What students pay for college
According to the College Board, a nonprofit membership association, tuition and fees for all private colleges and universities for 2005-2006 were $21,235 on average, up 6 percent over the previous year. Including room and board, the average full-fare price is $29,026.
Yet, the net cost of college -- what students actually pay -- is much less after federal tax credits, employer assistance and private grants are taken into account.
The College Board reports that the average out-of-pocket cost of tuition and fees at a private four-year college in 2005-2006 was roughly $11,600. With room and board, the net price is just under $20,000.
One student's story
For Mallory James, getting admitted to a top university was the easy part.
With SAT scores above 1500 and a weighted grade point average of 4.12, the Haiku, Hawaii, resident was courted by virtually every Ivy League school in the nation.
It was figuring out how to pay for it, and how much debt she was willing to incur post-graduation, that proved to be a far greater dilemma.
"My family and I decided to go ahead and apply (to the most selective schools) because we were aware that high levels of aid were available," she says, noting her family income was "on the lower end," as her mother was unemployed due to a disability and her parents are divorced.
Most schools came through with a financial aid package that reduced the $40,000 annual price tag to less than half, through grants and low-interest loans. Then came an offer from Princeton University -- a "no loan" package that replaced undergraduate loans with grants, allowing James to graduate debt free.
"I am so grateful for this program," says James, now a sophomore anthropology major at Princeton. "This allows me to study what I love without worrying about having to land a high-paying job right away. I may go on to graduate school to become a professor."