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.”

Trends in private college costs
Going forward, tuition costs at private colleges and universities are expected to continue rising, though at a slower rate.

An early look at 2006-2007 tuition increases indicate an average 5.4 percent rise, the slowest rate of increase in six years, according to National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. Better yet, some schools have actually cut sticker prices to attract students.

In December, Alliant International University in San Diego announced it would cut its tuition 26 percent this fall, joining a small but growing list of schools bucking the tuition trend. In 2005-2006, Chicago-based North Park University cut its tuition by 32 percent, while Roosevelt University, also in Chicago, reduced its fare by 12 percent. In fact, since Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio, cut its tuition by 29 percent in 1996, 19 private institutions have followed suit.

Some private colleges and universities have cut tuition prices
Alliant International University, San Diego, will cut tuition 26 percent
North Park University, Chicago, cut tuition by 32 percent

Roosevelt University, Chicago, cut tuition by 2 percent

Eureka College, Eureka, Ill., cut tuition by 30 percent

Lourdes College, Sylvania, Ohio, cut tuition by 41 percent

Salem International University, Salem, W.Va., cut tuition by 35 percent

Westminster College, Fulton, Mo., cut tuition by 20 percent

Albertson College, Caldwell, Idaho, cut tuition by 30 percent

Waldorf College, Forest City, Iowa, cut tuition by 15 percent

Heidelberg College, Tiffin, Ohio, cut tuition by 32 percent

Bethany College, Bethany, W.Va., cut tuition by 42 percent

Marlboro College, Marlboro, Vt., cut tuition by 8 percent

Wells College, Aurora, N.Y., cut tuition by 30 percent

Source: National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities

“A lot of schools are putting in tuition freezes, which levels tuition for incoming students and guarantees them the same rate for those four years,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of “Schools get a lot of publicity for making cuts, but they usually try to make up for the lost income by increasing enrollment. And they’re usually the ones that directly compete with other schools locally.”

At the same time, Princeton’s no-loan program, launched in 2001, touched off a tuition price war of sorts among its competing rivals. Today, Harvard University, Yale University, Cornell University and Stanford University have their own programs in place to boost enrollment of lower-income students.

“It’s largely been with institutions with large endowments and relatively few lower-income students to begin with,” says Kantrowitz.

Give it the old college try
So, before you bag the idea of a brand-name degree, first determine how much it will actually cost. And, of course, employ all of the
tools available to get that sticker price under control. It worked for James.

“I really made an effort to make sure the financial aid officers understood my unique family situation,” she says. “I strongly encourage all students to apply to any college they think they would really like to go to, and wait until they receive a
financial aid offer to seriously consider whether or not it will be financially feasible for their families. I didn’t have to think about whether a better quality education was worth more debt.”

To score the most financial aid dollars, become an education consumer. See ”
Strategies for getting college financial aid.”