Last spring, Allison Davis could hardly sleep, she was so stressed about what college to choose and how she’d pay for it.
Davis, then a senior at Liberty High School, knew — because her middle-class parents had said so, many times — that she needed a lot of financial help. She applied for 68 scholarships. She got three.
Then Park University in Parkville offered to cover the entire cost for her to attend the private school, nearly $23,000 a year.
“That scholarship was the reason I chose Park,” Davis said. “... Private colleges are expensive.”
For Davis and the vast majority of private-college students, the high tuition amounts are just a sticker price — actual costs vary.
These days, they’re varying more than ever.
A report released this month of 383 private schools across the country found that the average discount rate on tuition hit a record 45 percent for incoming freshmen.
In other words, said Brandon Johnson, associate vice president of enrollment management at Avila University in Kansas City, “For every dollar private schools charge in tuition, they discount 45 cents.”
In a weak economic recovery, institutions are sweetening the deal to put students in classrooms, according to the report by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.
“Schools figure it’s better to bring in some tuition dollars than none at all,” said Natalie Pullaro Davis, an association spokeswoman.
Consider that the tuition sticker price at private colleges is more than many families could afford in good times. Then add the reverberations from the 2008 recession.
“Families are still digging out from the effects of the recession — job losses, reduced income, having to use retirement funds to make ends meet,” said Lane Ramey, vice president for enrollment management at Rockhurst University.
College endowments lost money, too, so schools raised tuition to bring in more revenue. But at the same time, they worried the increases might price many good students out.
Enrollments began a slow drop around 2010. To avoid losing students to less-expensive but academically competitive public universities, private schools across the country — including those in the Midwest where enrollments dropped 2.4 percent from 2011 to 2012 — gave away more in grants and scholarships.
Today, more than 80 percent of private-school students get some scholarship or grant discount on tuition.
Public schools also have put more money in the pot for scholarships and grants. For example, the average grant aid for University of Missouri-Kansas City students in 2012 was $4,546, which means the average student paid less than half the $8,926 in base tuition fees.
At Avila, 98 percent of the 988 full-time undergraduate students get scholarships and grants from the school.
Tuition and fees will be $24,950 for the coming academic year, up $1,000, accompanied by a “marginal increase in the tuition discount rate,” Johnson said. The tuition discount rate is about 50 percent, he said.
“We want to make sure college is affordable to everyone bright enough to get in,” Johnson said.
Rockhurst University would disclose only its overall tuition discount rate, 41.2 percent, for undergraduate and graduate students.
Park gave its discount rate as 35.5 percent but said it does not include its many satellite campuses around the country.
Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan., reported average undergraduate tuition discount rates of about 50 percent.
At William Jewell College in Liberty, the average discount was 56 percent, up from a percentage in the mid-40s a decade ago. In the same time, tuition has increased by about $10,000, to $30,800 a year.
That means Jewell students on average pay about $13,500 a year, not including room and board.
But add in other scholarships and government grants, and many students end up with no tuition cost, said Gary Bracken, vice president for enrollment at Jewell. Many more pay only a small fraction of the sticker price.
Bracken said Jewell and probably many other private schools don’t want bright students to think they can’t attend the school that best suits their needs because the price tag is too big.
But schools have to be careful not to give away too much in scholarships and grants because they still need to have enough tuition money coming in to pay faculty and operate the college. And most want to see enrollment and academic programs grow.
“It is a delicate balance,” Bracken said.
Or, as Pullaro Davis put it: “There are some in higher education who say it is an unsustainable practice.”
Then there’s this question: If colleges end up paying half or more of students’ tuition, then why not just set a more affordable price in the first place?
“Students like to get scholarships,” Bracken said. “They like to feel that they have earned a scholarship to a good college.”
It’s marketing, he said. “Scholarships attract students.”