As the cost of a college education continues to soar, some private institutions are taking steps to make sure families aren't scared off by sticker shock before the application process even begins.
Throughout the nation, schools are freezing tuition, guaranteeing graduation in four years or matching aid offers at competing institutions.
In Massachusetts, Lesley University in Cambridge recently announced an initiative to cut its price tag, Regis College in Weston gives every incoming freshman an iPad, and Curry College in Milton, Tufts University in Medford, and Stonehill College in Easton are among the many schools that have boosted financial aid.
And based on local enrollment numbers, those efforts appear to be paying off, as more students than ever are attending college. Regis had record-high enrollment this year, while the number of students applying to Tufts set an all-time high, officials said.
"I think you'd be pleasantly surprised to learn of the amount of aid you might get from an independent college,'' said Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts. "In Massachusetts, we are a knowledge-based economy so it is critical students get an education beyond high school. People should be scared about not going to college and the costs associated with that.''
According to the College Board, the average cost of attending a private four-year institution, including tuition, fees, room and board, is $40,917 this year compared with $18,391 for an in-state public university. The cost of attending a state school such as University of Massachusetts Lowell is $23,340.
To help offset the higher cost, Doherty said, the 60 colleges in the Massachusetts association awarded more than $560 million in need-based financial aid last year to in-state students. "That has the effect of practically cutting in half the sticker price for the average student that gets financial aid,'' Doherty said.
During the past five years, institutional aid has increased by 50 percent, he said. The average debt for a student attending a private university in Massachusetts is $28,000 compared with $26,500 at a state university. He said 35 to 40 percent graduate from private colleges with no debt at all.
At Tufts, the average need-based award has steadily risen each year, said Kimberly Thurler, director of public relations at the university. In an e-mail, she said Tufts has also taken steps in recent years to reduce costs and increase administrative efficiencies.
For the class graduating in the spring, the average award was $28,404, while for this year's freshmen, the class of 2017, it was $36,241, she said. The university also has several programs to reach out to talented, low-income students and to offer them substantial aid so they can afford college, Thurler said.
"Increasing aid resources is a priority for Tufts,'' she said.
And despite the university's $61,000 a year sticker price, total undergraduate applications for the class of 2017 were 18,419, up 12.5 percent over the previous year and an all-time high, Thurler said.
The amount of aid given out by Curry College is also on the rise, said Fran Jackson, Curry spokeswoman. During the past five years, the amount of aid Curry has awarded has gone from $13 million to $20 million, with $23.6 million budgeted for this year. As of this fall, 88 percent of Curry's students are receiving some institutional aid, Jackson said.
She said the college also provides many resources to help families learn about their options, and its financial aid office has extended evening hours to give them more opportunity to take advantage of those resources.
Paul Vaccaro, vice president for marketing, communication and enrollment at Regis, said the college understands the financial challenges families are facing and is offering more assistance.
"Don't let sticker shock get in the way of having a student apply at any institution,'' he said. "There are a lot of private schools that are throwing a lot of money out there for scholarships that bring the cost significantly down.''
Vaccaro said Regis offers every freshman an iPad, which all students and teachers use in the classroom. In addition to helping families with the cost of technology, he said, the school-provided iPad allows students to buy electronic books, which saves on the cost of expensive textbooks.
Regis has also introduced five-year programs that allow students to earn a bachelor's and master's degree in less time to save money.
And like many institutions, Regis is offering more financial aid than ever before.
The amount of aid Regis awarded to undergraduate students, which does not include state or federal aid, has gone from $8.77 million in 2008-09 to $16.6 million this school year. During that same time, the average per-student award went from $11,300 to $17,600.
"In recognition of the financial climate in the last five years, we've become more aggressive in our aid strategies,'' Vaccaro said.
In an effort to keep costs down for students, Stonehill has also increased its financial aid. Between 2008-09 and 2012-13, aid went up by $10.3 million to $35.7 million. The college also has worked to keep tuition down by cutting costs; for example, it refinanced $5.8 million in debt, which will result in a cumulative savings of $575,000 over the next seven years, said Martin McGovern, spokesman for Stonehill.
While many universities are increasing financial aid, Lesley is decreasing aid at the same time it is slashing its sticker price in order to better reflect the actual cost students pay to attend the school.
Its president, Joseph Moore, said in a statement that one study has shown more than 50 percent of students look at college costs based on the listed price without learning about financial aid.
By reducing the official price, Lesley hopes families will see the actual cost of attending it. The university has two undergraduate schools: the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, with a current tuition of $32,000; and the College of Art and Design, with a tuition of $30,600. Starting next fall, the tuition at both of them will be $24,000.
In addition to offering more aid and tuition discounts, private institutions are being more upfront about aid options instead of making students wait, said Robert Weinerman, senior director of college finance at College Coach, a Watertown-based consulting company. He's been told anecdotes of colleges telling sought-after students what they can expect to receive in an aid package before a final decision on attending is made.
"Ten years ago colleges would say we have merit scholarships for our best kids,'' Weinerman said. "Today the student says my PSAT score is 'x' and they say that sounds like at least a $10,000 discount.''
And some colleges are now more willing to negotiate aid packages. Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., for example, will commit to increasing grant aid by matching offers from other Ivy League schools. According to its website, it will also "strive to match'' aid offers from Stanford University, Duke University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"We are hearing that colleges are telling people, 'Don't turn us down if you get a better offer,' and Cornell is at the forefront of being very public about that,'' Weinerman said. "They are basically saying, 'Don't let our price keep you from applying. We want to be competitive.' ''
Reach Jennifer Fenn Lefferts at jflefferts@ yahoo.com.