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College On The Cheap

A lot of people pay full price. That doesn't mean your clients have to.

Ouch. Did I ever get slammed for my last column, which shared what I thought was good news: Colleges across the country are routinely discounting their prices for families.

“What a crock,” one irate reader wrote after reading the column, which he insisted was littered with “lies, damn lies.”

“You do a great disservice to the people who read this magazine,” another reader complained.

Most of the ticked-off readers appear to have first-hand experience in paying their children's college tabs. While some acknowledged getting scholarships, others said they had paid full price. And since they paid full price, they believe that these discounts, which have been well documented by the federal Department of Education, the College Board and others, must be fictitious.

I hate to rile these people up again, but they are wrong. Two-thirds of college students receive grants (free money) from schools. At private colleges, 82 percent capture some kind of tuition discount, with the average being 53.5 percent. The typical discount at state universities is 15 percent, but these sticker prices start out lower.

One reader suggested that if I had college-age kids, I wouldn't go spouting off this nonsense about discounts. Both my children, however, are in college. In fact, it was my desire to cut the cost of my children's college education that prompted me to veer in a different direction professionally. After being a financial journalist for more than 15 years, I began writing exclusively about college strategies for families with teenagers.

My son, a college freshman, was able to knock $19,500 off his first-year tuition at Beloit College, a liberal arts school that's 90 minutes from Chicago. That drops the price for tuition and room/board to $22,702. Over four years, Ben's price cut would be worth $78,000.

My son also received roughly $19,000 from each of the other seven schools he applied to, including Lake Forest College (IL), Drew University (NJ), University of Puget Sound (WA) and Wheaton College (MA). My daughter, a senior who attends Juniata College, PA (and the University of Barcelona in Spain for her junior year), received approximately $60,000 for her four years. She also cut the price further by being a resident assistant in her dorm during her sophomore year.

Getting college discounts isn't automatic. As I've learned, you have to pick colleges carefully by examining not only whether colleges are academic matches, but financial ones too.

Here's an example from my own family's experience.

If my son or daughter had attended one of the campuses in the University of California or California State University system, I would have had to pay full price. That's because the UC campuses, with few exceptions, only give need-based aid. In California and plenty of other states, it's difficult to obtain need-based financial aid at state universities unless your family is squarely middle-class or low-income. That's probably why some readers, who were complaining about my last column, ended up paying the full fare.

The major source of aid in my state is the Cal Grant, but families with adjusted gross incomes of more than $80,200 won't get even a sliver of this money. I would have paid full price if either of my children had ended up at a state university.

Actually, my costs at a state school would probably have been even higher because it's become increasing difficult for students here — and at other state universities — to graduate in four years. The best four-year grad rate among state schools in California is UCLA (66.2 percent), but the numbers slide significantly as you move down the academic food chain. The four-year grad rates at San Francisco State and San Diego State, for instance, are 11.5 percent and 19.9 percent respectively.

For our family, a cheaper and preferable academic option turned out to be private colleges. Most private schools, except for the Ivy League and a few other highly elite schools, discount their prices because that's what their competition is doing.

My children gravitated to liberal arts colleges because they offer a boutique education with small classes, an ability to know your professors and the opportunity to conduct undergraduate research. The National Science Foundation's statistics show that liberal arts colleges are great institutions if you're interested in graduate school, which appealed to my son who hopes to major in physics. According to the NSF, the majority of the top 50 schools that produce undergraduates, who ultimately earn PhD's, are liberal arts colleges. My son's school is in that top 50.

How did I know if a private school would give my son and daughter money? One way that I routinely check on the generosity of a school is at the College Board's website. Once I'm on the College Board's home page, I can type in the name of any school in the College QuickFinder search box.

Once you reach a school's profile, click on its “Cost & Financial Aid” link to find lots of statistics that show what kind of merit awards and need-based packages an institution hands out.

Colleges aren't free, but there is no reason why you or your clients have to pay full price. Keep reading my column and you'll find ways to save money.

Writer's BIO:

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is a college consultant, author and speaker and she writes college blogs for CBSMoneyWatch, US News & World Report and TheCollegeSolutionBlog.com.

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