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Private colleges ease costs for students

| Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012

As a high school senior, Jarred Kallmann was a young man with a plan.

He'd graduate from high school, get accepted to a small private college not far from home and study to be a teacher.

Greensburg's Seton Hill University was the Ligonier student's one and only choice.

But Kallmann's plan could have been derailed when he saw the price tag for his private education ?quot; $27,654 a year, just for tuition.

He knew the larger public schools such as Pitt and Penn State were more affordable, but he wasn't willing to give up his small-college dream.

Then Seton Hill, where spokeswoman Kary Coleman Hazen said 95 percent of students receive some kind of financial aid and the average award is $18,900 a year, sweetened the deal for Kallmann. The university offered assistance that made his out-of-pocket tuition less than the full sticker price of attending some of Pennsylvania's public schools.

It's a story playing out more often at the nation's private schools where administrators are dipping deeper into school endowments and ramping up fundraising efforts to offer more grants and scholarships to cash-strapped students, said Ken Redd, director of research and policy analysis for the National Association of College and University Business Officers, which represents both public and private schools.

In the past 10 years, the pool of grants and scholarships available from the nation's public and private schools has jumped from about $12.1 billion to $29.7 billion, with two-thirds of all the institutional funds from this pool being awarded by private schools, Redd said.

Financial resources

Last year, 88 percent of the nation's first-year undergraduates at private colleges received merit or need-based grants and/or scholarships from their schools, Redd said. Of that number, the average award totaled at least half of their tuition, he added.

That's exactly what gave John Sigg, the eldest of nine children from Bethel Park, the chance to attend St. Vincent College near Latrobe where two of his siblings also are students. The junior political science major said St. Vincent lowered the $27,500 tuition "enough to make it similar to a public school."

St. Vincent Chief Financial Officer Dennis Thimons said that because of funding by alumni and other private donors, the school is able to "offer substantial assistance to students and their families" to make its net tuition competitive.

"If you look at the sticker price of the University of Pittsburgh, obviously the price for that school is way lower than any of the private schools," said Judy Bolsinger, associate provost for enrollment management at Carlow University. "We use financial aid as a way to even the playing field."

At Carlow, where the tuition is $23,400, about 65 percent of students receive financial assistance. The average award is about $9,000.

At Grove City College, things work a little differently. The college will accept state or institutional aid but not federal assistance, including federal loans for its students, in an attempt to stay free of federal regulation.

About 68 percent of students earn financial aid based on need and merit. Tuition is determined by "what it costs to run the college," said Tom Ball, director of financial aid. Tuition this year was $13,598.

"All of our aid is endowed aid," Ball said. "We try to raise money through capital campaigns. I wouldn't say we're doing it to compete with any individual schools. We're just doing what we need to do to manage the school and make the college as attractive to prospective students as possible."

Uneven increases

Private college officials point out that on average, their tuition increases have been much smaller than those at public schools.

Average tuition at the nation's private schools rose 3 percent, from $30,475 during the last three years to $31,395, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Public school tuition increased 12 percent in that same time to an average of $13,297.

This was an especially tough year for students at Pennsylvania's public colleges. Tuition at Penn State rose about 5 percent to $15,124 and Pitt increased its tuition by 8.5 percent to $15,272 for in-state undergraduates, due largely to drastic cuts in state funding.

Respectively, Penn State and Pitt have the first- and second-highest tuitions of four-year public institutions in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Tuition at the 14 state-owned schools ?quot; Indiana, California, Clarion, Edinboro and Slippery Rock universities in Western Pennsylvania ?quot; rose 7.5 percent to $6,240 after an 18 percent cut in state funding.

Though officials at Pitt and Penn State declined to be interviewed for this story, Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg said earlier that "our tuition rates are already high. To add this increase ... does impose another real burden on students."

Offering breaks

Matthew Greene of Greene and Associates, an educational consulting company, warned against falling victim to sticker shock at private schools.

"It's a small minority that pay the sticker price," Greene said.

Nationally, less than 12 percent of students at private institutions paid the full price last year, according to College Board, a nonprofit organization that researches education issues.

Feeling the effects of a struggling economy and competition from other institutions, some private schools are slashing tuition.

� Last summer, Duquesne University reduced tuition for incoming education majors by 50 percent, a reflection of the poor economy and cuts in education funding officials feared may lead students to reconsider plans to become teachers. School officials say it's too soon to determine how successful the move has been in attracting students.

� About the same time, Cabrini College, a Catholic school just outside Philadelphia, got national attention when it reduced its $33,000 tuition by 12.5 percent.

� The University of Charleston in West Virginia cuts its $25,500 tuition by 22 percent by giving each student no less than $6,000 in aid, in part, officials said, to compete with West Virginia University where undergraduate tuition is $5,674.

� Just across the state line in New Jersey, Seton Hall University ?quot; where Pennsylvanians make up the third-largest segment of its student body ?quot; made headlines when tuition was slashed by 61 percent for students who maintain a 3.0 grade point average and complete 24 credits a year. That was done to compete with nearby Rutgers University, the flagship public school where undergraduate tuition is $10,104 a year. Seton Hall's tuition dropped to $12,154 from $31,440.

"We're aware of the economy," said Alyssa McCloud, vice president for enrollment management at Seton Hall. "We want to show that private education can be as affordable as public education."

Redd said private schools that cut tuition generally compensate for the lost revenue by reducing administrative costs, often shying away from cuts in instructional programs.

At Cabrini College, the tuition cut was a reaction to what officials saw as an education crisis.

"We realized the cost of high education is spiraling out of control," said Cabrini College spokeswoman Marie Angelella George. "We realize that in this economy, many families are struggling to afford college."

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