For students with their sights set on a private college, the angst comes as a one-two punch: first from competing with thousands of others for a precious few spots, then from trying to scrape together up to $50,000 a year to foot the bill.
Starting next year, Seton Hall University will try to ease that follow-up blow for early applicants with strong academic credentials, giving them two-thirds off the regular sticker price for tuition, a discount of about $21,000. For New Jersey residents, who comprise about 70 percent of Seton Hall’s undergraduates, that would make the cost equivalent to that of Rutgers University, the state’s flagship public institution; for those from out of state, the private school would be much cheaper.
University officials said the novel policy was intended to provide clarity and certainty up front to the most desirable applicants, easing the weeks and months of stress admitted students faced as they waited to hear how much financial aid they might get from different campuses.
"The primary motivation has been that as we go through what looks like a double-dip recession, we wanted to help our students," Seton Hall’s president, Gabriel Esteban, said of the new approach. But in addition, he said, "it probably will help us in attracting a certain quality of students."
To qualify for the discount, which would equal about two-thirds of this year’s $31,440 tuition (room, board and other fees add about $13,000 to the total annual bill), students must graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes and have a combined score of at least 1,200 on their math and reading SATs — but no less than 550 on each — or an ACT score of 27.
National experts on admissions and financial aid said they knew of no other college providing such a blanket discount for top-flight students, although others have similarly tried to distinguish themselves in this ailing economy by appealing to students’ bottom lines. Sewanee, a liberal arts college in Tennessee, this fall cut its total annual bill for students by 10 percent. Many Ivy League schools have lately made a "no loan" commitment, promising to cover students’ entire assessed financial need with grants, to families earning as much as $100,000 per year, hoping they would not dismiss them as options. Albright College, in Reading, Pa., decided in 2009 to give out more in merit aid than in need-based aid and to send details of financial aid awards out with admissions letters, rather than as follow-ups.
And the state of Georgia has for a decade been granting residents with A and B averages full scholarships to its public colleges, although that program was scaled back this spring for budgetary reasons.
Like many colleges, Seton Hall, a Catholic school in South Orange, N.J., has need-blind admissions: that is, it accepts or rejects students without regard to their ability to pay. But also like many of its peers, it offers more generous financial support to the students it most wants — generally known as merit aid.
Studies by the National Association for College Admission Counseling showed that in the mid-1990s, a large majority of colleges provided financial aid based only on need, but that by 2007, nearly as many provided aid based on perceived merit, academic or otherwise.
"The most elite institutions in the United States have historically had policies that they would not give aid for any reason other than financial need," said Jerome Sullivan, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. "But there were always exceptions, and since the ’80s, you’ve seen more and more schools shift away from that. It’s all about competing for the best students."
While any effort to make college more affordable is welcome, Sullivan said, "I prefer to see discounting of tuition based on the economic conditions of the student’s family, which I think is more in keeping with the mission of these nonprofit institutions."
To be eligible for the lower price at Seton Hall, students must apply by the Dec. 15 "early action" deadline, thereby indicating a strong, but nonbinding, preference for Seton Hall over other schools.
Applicants to most colleges, including Seton Hall, fill out a financial aid form provided by the federal Education Department, which estimates what families should be expected to be able to pay and determines eligibility for federal grant and loan programs. But many colleges provide less financial aid than the federal government says a family needs.
Seton Hall, founded in 1859, has more than 5,000 undergraduate students, with 82 percent of them living on its suburban campus 14 miles west of Manhattan. It has nearly as many students in its graduate schools of law, business, health sciences and other fields; the new discount policy will not apply to the graduate students.