At a time when college costs can rival the price of a luxury car, institutions nationwide are working hard to avoid sticker shock on the part of anxious parents and prospective students.
And like the price of a car, financial aid experts say, college costs can be negotiable. Thanks to grants, scholarships, loans and work study, as few as 15 percent to 20 percent of students at many of the nation's more than 3,000 colleges and universities pay full price -- even in a time of rising enrollment and tuition prices.
"Don't make the mistake of only looking at the price tag before you find out what might be available through the college," said Martha O'Connell, dean of admissions for McDaniel College, which was founded as Western Maryland College in 1867. "There are multiple ways available to help parents to afford college."
Her private, liberal arts institution in Westminster is a case in point. At McDaniel College, 85 percent of its 1,600 undergraduate students receive financial aid to offset tuition, room and board that totals $27,000. The average award is $13,000, leaving families with a bill of about $14,000.
"The dollar figure that matters the most is not the sticker price but how much a family will be asked to pay," said Roberto Noya, vice president for enrollment management at Goucher College, where the total cost of attendance is $33,500.
"At the beginning of each recruitment year, we have families frightened away by sticker shock," Noya said. "But there are also many families who feel that it is at least worth investigating how much financial aid they may be eligible for. Very often we can make it affordable."
Much the same situation applies at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. There, 90 percent of 689 full-time day students receive financial aid, with a typical package totaling between $13,000 and $15,000 for tuition, room, board and fees that next year will total close to $27,000.
"Our biggest message to families is not to self-select out of a school because of cost," said Sharon Bogdan, associate vice president for enrollment management at the College of Notre Dame. "Work through the entire process and see what we can do for you."
Thanks to several scholarships and a federal loan, junior Lindsay Oliver's bill for Notre Dame is about $6,000 a year.
"I wasn't expecting that much to be available," said the 21-year-old biology major from Bel Air. "I was delightfully surprised when I received my financial aid package. My advice to other students is `Don't be intimidated by the prices. Just go and research scholarships. You never know where you can get money from.' "
Typically, students receive financial aid packages that combine grants and loans from the school and the federal government, with scholarships from the state, businesses and private organizations. The money may be awarded based on financial need, academic merit, special talent and athletic ability.
Eligibility for need-based aid -- grants and loans from federal student-aid programs -- is determined by the U.S. Department of Education based upon financial information families submit in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
But while the amount of need-based aid a student will be offered is based on a standardized analysis of the family's finances, each college has its own method of determining who will receive a "tuition discount" -- a merit award or institutional grant that reduces the published price of attending a college or university.
Last fall, the tuition discounts at more than 350 independent colleges and universities rose to 40 percent, according to a survey conducted by the National Association of College and University Business Officers. At an average institution, the net tuition was 60 percent of the published tuition price, and the other 40 percent was returned to students in the form of grants.
Tuition discounts are being used as an enrollment management tool to shape the character of incoming classes at private and public colleges.
"A lot of aid is being given out based on academic ability, leadership and special talents," said Lucie Lapovsky, president of Mercy College, in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., who for many years chaired the tuition discounting task force of the collegiate business officers group.
The probability of enrolling many of these sought-after students can increase with a financial incentive, she said.
"Institutions believe in the value of attracting above-average students to round out the school's profile and make it a better place," she said. "And America likes things on sale."
McDaniel College offers merit awards using a formula that factors in cumulative grade point average and standardized test scores.
And since 1996, Washington College in Chestertown has guaranteed a $10,000 renewable scholarship to members of the National Honor Society. The percentage of approximately 330 entering freshmen holding membership in the organization immediately jumped from 25 percent to 50 percent or more and has remained at that level.