Fear you’ll never be able afford college tuition? Schools are feeling your pain. More colleges and universities, both public and private, are trying to make themselves less expensive — and more attractive — by experimenting with ways to offset rising costs and mounting debt.

College costs have skyrocketed past the rate of inflation year after year; tuition, fees and living expenses can now top $45,000 a year at some private schools. They’re expected to rise yet again, by nearly 6 percent, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. State-school costs are lower, averaging $13,000, but annual increases can fluctuate, depending on the state’s fiscal stability.

As tuition rises, so does a family’s share of the financial burden. According to the U.S. Department of Education, students carry more than $8,000 a year in education debt.

Approximately 50 higher-education institutions, from Amherst College to Yale University, are making attempts to lower the burden. New programs include freezing tuition, offering grants over loans, and changing financial-aid formulas to lower families’ contributions. Unlike past efforts that mostly focused on helping lower-income students, these new moves are also aimed at helping more affluent families feel less pain.

Helping students be debt-free

The latest to change its ways efforts is Davidson College, a top-ranked liberal arts school near Charlotte, N.C., which will eliminate all student loans from its financial aid packages starting this fall. Instead, it plans to boost its endowment and provide all its student aid in the form of grants and work-study. In doing so, Davidson becomes the first liberal-arts college in the U.S. to adopt the policy of helping students graduate debt-free.

In the last school year, a quarter of the school’s 1,650 students received loans. At $39,000 a year, tuition is not cheap. So the main goal of Davidson’s new initiative was to make economically disadvantaged students put off by the high numbers think twice, says Christopher Gruber, Davidson’s dean of admissions and financial aid. “Students were skipping past us because they looked at the sticker price and said, ‘Why even bother?’ We wanted to crank open our doors even further.”

Davidson is making a smart marketing move, says Terry Hartle, senior vice-president of the American Council on Education. “It’s a very respected college, but not well-known outside the Southeast. This will give it more national attention, and I suspect they’ll be receiving thousands more applications this year.” It’s too early to tell, but Gruber says the school had a spike in acceptances from those offered admission for the fall semester.

Hartle says other liberal arts colleges would love to follow in Davidson’s footsteps, but few have the funds to do so. Still, Davidson has an endowment of only $420 million, so leaders will still have to scramble get the millions it needs from other sources. The program will cost about $1.8 million a year for students now on aid. Leaders expect the number of needy students to grow to about 40 percent, which would cost $3.5 million a year. Trustees already have raised $75 million to pay for the first few years of the effort. Gruber says new money will be raised, instead of tuition, to fund future grants. “This is not a Robin Hood program, it won’t take away from other programs.”

Ivy League more relaxed on income levels

Davidson’s funds pale in comparison to the Ivy League schools and big public universities that pay for similar efforts from endowments worth billions.

In 2001, Princeton was the first to announce it would replace all student loans with grants and not ask low-income families to contribute funds for undergraduate education. Other Ivies like Harvard, Yale and Columbia soon said they would do the same. Harvard does not ask families with incomes under $60,000 to contribute anything, and it also reduced the expected contribution amount for families making $60,000 to $80,000.

More schools are also giving homeowners a break. A consortium of 28 top private colleges that call themselves the 568 Presidents’ Group (after the federal antitrust exception allowing them to set joint aid rules) will start using a more generous financial-aid calculation this year that aims to reduce contributions for families whose homes have appreciated. Previously, this group, which includes schools like Duke, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania, counted the market value of a house, up to 2.4 times a family’s income, as an available asset, regardless of how large the mortgage was. Now they will count only home equity, which is market value minus mortgage debt, and cap that at 1.2 times income.

On the West Coast, Stanford said earlier this year that it would tighten the cap on annual undergrad student loans, from $3,500 to $2,000. It also will reduce the expected contribution from families making between $60,000 and $135,000 by capping the amount of home equity assessed to 1.5 times the family income, saving an average of $2,000 a year. Stanford said it would make an allowance for renters with no home equity so that their other assets aren’t disproportionately weighted.

Public schools pump up efforts

It wasn’t until 2003 that public schools took similar action. The first to take that step was the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when it announced the ” Carolina Covenant,” eliminating loans for students whose families made 150 percent of the federal poverty level, then $28,000 for a family of four. The program has now expanded to those earning 200 percent of the poverty level. UNC Chapel Hill had 949 Covenant scholars, last year, about 8 percent of the total undergraduate population, and will be adding another 450 this fall. Other public powerhouse schools are making similar efforts: the University of Virginia has Access UVa, and the University of Texas at Austin has the Longhorn Opportunity Scholarship.

Some schools are increasing income-level eligibility. Emory University in Atlanta is replacing loans with grants for families earning $50,000 or less. For income ranges between $50,000 and $100,000, Emory will cap the total amount of need-based loans a student must take at $15,000 over their college career.

Others are locking in tuition rates. Big schools, such as George Washington University in Washington, D.C., to regional schools, such as Hiram College in Central Ohio, let each incoming class lock in the tuition they pay as freshmen until they graduate, typically up to four or five years. Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., recently said it would freeze tuition and fees at the current year’s levels for new and returning students.

Students taking advantage

The new programs are luring students. Cassandra Wall of Palm City, Fla., was accepted by five colleges, but chose Emory University because it offered to cover her $46,000 tuition through grants and work-study programs. She turned down her top choice because it would have required her to take out nearly $25,000 in loans. “It was a no-brainer.”

As the federal government copes with the student-loan scandals, many states are giving more help to their college-age residents. Virginia recently passed legislation allowing community-college graduates in certain fields to continue paying that tuition level if they transferred to the University of Virginia or another four-year institution in the state. A few states, including Washington, Missouri and Texas, have passed or are considering legislation to stem tuition increases and make college costs more predictable. Ohio recently passed a budget bill that limits tuition increases in 2008 to 3 percent and freezes tuition in 2009.

Is this the best deal you’ll get?

Grants and tuition freezes are attention-getting, but not all programs are as beneficial as they look. Those targeting low-income-level students won’t significantly boost their ranks at most schools, says Robert Shireman, president of The Institute for College Access and Success. “One reason some schools can make these offers is because only a small percentage of low-income students can meet their very high entrance expectations.”

And while some colleges increase family income-level limits, they also raise other costs. Princeton University plans to freeze tuition at this year’s level of $33,000, but it’s raising room and board fees by 19 percent. Overall, the total cost to attend Princeton this year will be nearly $44,000, a 4.2 increase from last year. “When colleges cut tuition, they also often cut their student-aid budgets, so many students end up paying the same amount,” says Shireman.

So that doesn’t necessarily mean a school that has made a change will give you the best aid package, said Kal Chany, author of The Princeton Review’s “Paying for College Without Going Broke” and president of Campus Consultants, which helps clients maximize their aid packages. “The size of the package doesn’t matter,” Chany said. “What matters is how much do you have to pay and how much do you have to borrow?”

How to compare offers

Look at the school’s total cost and compare apples with apples, he says. “Some schools will just calculate tuition, fees, room and board, while other schools will also add on comprehensive costs like transportation and personal expenses, which obviously will make the total higher. “Find out how much grant and scholarship money is offered, how much work-study is involved, and then how much students are expected to borrow. A school that won’t let students take out loans may not offer as good a package as the one who wants the family to contribute a portion.”

Also check to see if their estimates are realistic, says Shireman. “One school will estimate $1,000 for books and supplies while another will list $1,500, so compare costs and check with schools to make sure they’re not low-balling.”

Still, if college tuitions continue to rise — and there is no sign that they’ll turn in the other direction soon — more schools will realize it’s in their best interest, as well as their undergraduates’, to relieve the heavy load of student debt.

Vanessa Richardson writes about business from San Francisco.

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