Today, many private colleges use what I call "the Publisher's Clearinghouse" selling approach --first jack up the price, then offer a modest "scholarship" to any applicant with reasonable credentials. The colleges have figured out that people are more likely to attend a school that costs $25,000 and offers a $5,000 scholarship than one that costs $20,000 with no scholarship. Congratulations to all you lucky winners!
Now that you've got your head in the game, here are a few tips to aid the savvy comparison college shopper:
Need-based aid packages are a combination of grants (money you keep), loans (money you pay back), and work study (the promise of employment to help pay the bills). Scrutinize the mix of each in your packages.
Check the Cost Assumptions
If a college says it is meeting your full need, does it factor in an allowance for travel and living expenses? Some consider these expenses in their awards, others don't.
Ask About Next Year
Is your merit scholarship renewable? Will the loan component of your package increase next year? Some colleges front-load aid into the freshman year to reel you in, then water down the aid package for the sophomore through senior years.
Use Better Offers As Leverage
If your first choice doesn't come through with the top aid offer, send a copy of the best one to the aid office with a tactful request to "review the calculations." Be sure to highlight special circumstances that other colleges may have considered more generously. Many colleges are reluctant to admit that they match other offers, but they may make an "adjustment" if given a rationale.
When decision time comes, many students must choose between a first choice college that offers modest or zero aid versus a less desirable school that dangles a scholarship. There's no easy answer to the dilemma. With tuition rising into the stratosphere, more and more families are taking the cheaper option and saving money for graduate school. But the college years are also a defining experience in many young lives, and nobody can put a price tag on that.