AKRON, Ohio — When Emma Dontis was deciding where to go to college, the pricey College of Wooster got the nod, in part because she loved the campus — and in part because it offered to slash $35,000 off the yearly bill of $50,000.
"It came down to money," Dontis said. "It was the only in-state school I applied to, and I decided I wanted to stay close to home. And they gave me quite a bit of money."
Dontis had discovered a little-known secret of higher education. While the sticker price for private colleges appears to be much higher than that of their public counterparts, the privates — also called independents — often slash student bills by half or more.
That means many students — almost all, really — do not pay the published list prices of $30,000 to $50,000 that are common at many private colleges.
According to an April study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO), the average first-time, full-time freshman nationwide received $12,000 in grants in 2009. That significantly offset the average tuition of $28,600 at private, not-for-profit institutions, which award two-thirds of the institutional aid nationwide.
Sometimes these awards are funded, which means that the institution has donations or endowment proceeds — real money — to pay for them.
But more often, the scholarships (for merit) and grants (for need) are what the colleges consider "unfunded," which means they are simply cuts in the college's published list price. They can be swept away, much like a car dealer reduces the price of a vehicle. Sticker prices — in cars and higher education alike — are not always real.
At Oberlin College in Lorain County, Ohio, for example, only 15 to 20 percent of the $54 million in institutional aid is funded, according to Rob Reddy, director of financial aid.
"What we do (in financial aid) is create a budget, subtract the family contribution and meet 100 percent of the need," he said. Given that Oberlin's list price is $57,000 a year, one of the highest in Ohio, the need can be considerable.
"We understand that expense is a major concern," Reddy said. "We try to attract students who will thrive. Then we talk about the cost factor."
As college costs have skyrocketed in the past two decades, so has the amount that private colleges are willing to slash off the bill.
According to the NACUBO study, the discount rate for private colleges has grown from about 27 percent in 1990 to 37 percent in 2000 to almost 43 percent last fall.
The practice is so pervasive that almost 86 percent of first-time, full-time freshmen at private colleges nationwide got price breaks, according to the study.
At Walsh University in North Canton, 98 percent of students get some kind of institutional aid — almost all of it unfunded — to meet the yearly cost of $35,000 for tuition, fees, room and board, said Brett Freshour, vice president for enrollment management.
While $35,000 is a relatively moderate cost for a private college, it still is out of reach for many of the university's students, he said.
"The mission of our founders, the Brothers of Christian Instruction, was to educate the working classes," Freshour said. Walsh students "are not on the wealthy end of the spectrum. A good percentage of them are really needy."
At the College of Wooster, more than three-quarters of students get some kind of institutional aid, said Scott Friedhoff, vice president of enrollment and college relations. One in five students comes from a family with an income of less than $40,000, he said.
"We will put together a financial-aid award that will make it feasible for every student we admit," he said.
Those awards often are essential to attracting incoming freshmen, who are the bedrock of many of the college's enrollment strategies.
These incoming students have the potential to be enrolled for four years or longer, bringing in federal funds and loan money along the way even if they contribute little out of pocket.
Colleges also get the chance to shape the incoming class the way they want it, luring students with attributes in music or sports or other special categories.
The students fill seats that might otherwise go empty and bolster enrollment. The right students can help the college to improve its performance in the all-important national rankings that almost all brag about on their home page.
Mom and dad may be thrilled that Junior can command discounts of $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 or more, and the luckiest families may find themselves picking among several offers.
That's what happened to Emma Dontis, the Firestone High grad who weighed an attractive offer from Wellesley College against that of the College of Wooster.
Dontis recalls that the private women's college in Massachusetts offered her about $35,000 to offset the $55,000 yearly bill.
"Our students pay only what they can afford — nothing more," the college says on its website. Last year, the typical Wellesley student received $38,400 in loans, work-study programs and grants.
Dontis, who is majoring in biology with an eye to becoming a marine biologist, selected Wooster because she wanted a co-ed college and wanted to be closer to her family in Akron.
Wooster offered an aid package that is typical for a Wooster student "coming from a family with similar financial resources as Dontis'," said Friedhoff of the financial-aid office.