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My husband and I are very experienced when it comes to the college search: Our younger son will begin his freshman year at college this September and our older son will be graduating in December. We did extensive research in order to help our sons find the right places to use as springboards into their hopefully successful and prosperous careers. One mistake we nearly made at the beginning was to eliminate private colleges from consideration when we discovered how costly they are.

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Private colleges are so expensive. They’re (are you sitting down?) $30,000 per year, $40,000 per year, $50,000 per year, and even more. When you compare those numbers with public universities, whose costs typically fall between $10,000 and $15,000 per year (sometimes more, sometimes less by state and also depending on variables like room and board versus commuting), it seems like a no-brainer.

I remember the first time I looked at the cost of a private college. My chin dropped to the floor and I closed out of that browser immediately, trying to wipe the memory of what I had just seen from my brain.

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That was before I researched things. As we learned more about the college admission and financial aid process, we discovered that public universities — whose costs are state-subsidized — are indeed less expensive initially and “on paper” than private colleges.

What makes the difference comes later. Private sources (individuals and corporations) contribute healthy amounts of funding to private colleges and make it possible for them to offer huge scholarships to their incoming students, often making the cost of tuition plus room and board comparable to their public counterparts. Generous merit scholarships based on grades and test scores are offered in progressive tiers to freshmen who satisfy certain initial requirements, and often there will be additional awards for certain majors, community service, graduation from local high schools, and even awards if a sibling also attends. You can get the details from the individual college financial aid offices.

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Knowing there are many ways to reduce the initial cost of private colleges and make them fit within your family budget a little easier can ease your mind. It can also help you focus on other things, like helping your teenager pick a school that is a good fit by being the size he likes, offering the right classes and major, providing interesting extracurricular activities, and feeling like a place where he will feel comfortable at this first real home away from home.

Melisa Wells is financial contributor for Manilla.com and founder of SuburbanScrawl.com. 

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