Colleges help to tame tuition

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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