High-priced private colleges are offering students tuition breaks even when they don't need them.
High-priced private colleges are offering students tuition breaks even when they don't need them. - 
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The suspense is over for many college-bound kids, as nearly all the acceptance letters have gone out. Now it's decision time -- not only which school to attend in the fall, but how to pay for it.

Financial aid that colleges give out regardless of need comes as a welcome boost to many American households. But even though state schools cost a tiny fraction of what it costs to attend private colleges, that's just the sticker price.

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, says the actual amount students pay at private colleges is on average less than 60 percent of the total cost of school. That discount is a selling point for students and for schools, as tuition costs soar and the economy remains weak.

"Offering a merit-based scholarship where maybe that student is not eligible for need-based financial aid could entice them to come to your school  instead of a different institution where they'd have to pay the full sticker price," says Amanda Griffith, who teaches economics at Wake Forest University.

Griffith says colleges want to attract a variety of students, including those whose families make too much to be eligible for financial aid. They want the drum majors, the debate stars, the artsy types.

Beckie Supiano, who reports for the Chronicle of Higher Education, says merit aid has given private colleges an edge."The colleges that really rely on merit aid tend to feel that they just wouldn't be able to enroll the kind of class they're looking to without it," she says.

But some say the trend toward giving money to students regardless of income needs to stop, and several private college presidents are calling for a shift back to more need-based aid. Tori Haring-Smith, president of Washington Jefferson College, is one of them. "We need to provide broader and broader access to higher education," she says.

She says that doesn't mean colleges ought to stop trying to lure students with special talents. But she says they do need to give more aid to students who just plain can't afford private college tuition.

Ekman, of the Council of Independent Colleges, says many people fall into that category. "The 18-year-old college-going generation these days is disproportionately lower income compared to what it was a generation ago," he says.

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