PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — After decades of runaway tuition costs — the tables may finally be turning.

A declining pool of candidates, competition from online schools, and a questioning of the worth of a college degree has many schools struggling to survive — and that may be putting families into a better bargaining position.

KDKA’s Andy Sheehan: “Has this become a buyer’s market?”

Troy Onink: “It is a buyer’s market if you know what you’re doing.”

It may seem crude, but financial adviser Troy Onink says today applying to college is lot like buying a car — you shop around, find what you like and try to get the best deal.

“You get a cash-back rebate on Ford or a Chevy or whatever,” Onink said. “That’s what these private colleges are doing. They’re discounting their tuition, so it’s not sticker price you’re paying, it’s something less.”

Coleen Leonard is a single mother of four whose husband died in an industrial accident. Her youngest, Erin, is an excellent student with high aspirations, but she’s conscious of her family’s financial constraints.

“I wanted to get into an Ivy school and have that name, but now that I’m here I think it’s more important to get an education as quick as I can with the same quality and get into the workforce,” Leonard said.

There are two ways to reduce the cost of college — Erin has both — merit and need.

To determine need or a parent’s ability to pay, a family fills out a financial aid form stating income and other assets. This will determine your EFC — your expected family contribution. The lower your EFC, the more need-based aid you can expect. Your retirement savings won’t be counted, but things like rental properties may be.

“Position some of your assets so that they’re not going to hurt you so much for financial aid,” said Onink.

Then, there’s merit. State schools are cheaper than private, but offer fewer merit scholarships. Onink advises “casting a wide net.” Apply to in-state schools like Cal U, prestigious private schools like Carnegie Mellon and less prestigious middle-tier schools like Robert Morris, which are more eager to find qualified students to fill seats.

“Great intuitions but their sticker price might be a little bit less and they might be willing to offer some academic merit aid money,” Onink said.

Tuition discounts at most private colleges have increased from about 35 percent tuition 10 years ago to 45 percent today, as schools like Robert Morris try to lure qualified candidates like Erin.

“They are offering her an $11,000 scholarship just for her grades and SAT scores,” said Leonard.

With the other merit and need based aid they’re offering, Erin says Robert Morris is the best deal and the best fit, making it her choice over Penn state.

“They treated me like they wanted me, and Penn State was – there’s a ton of people and I don’t want to compete to get the attention I want,” Erin said.

For parents who worry about the cost of college — Onink says the lesson here is — you can do this.

“If you really take the time to do the research yourself now… start early, it is doable,” Onink said. “Just because the sticker price is $65,000 or even $25,000 at a state university may be a lot. In each case, if you do your work ahead of time, you’re going to find out these universities are a lot more affordable than you thought they were.”

Onink calls paying for college a tollbooth on the way to retirement. Do the right things and you’ll be able to pay that toll and still get off at the exit you want.

For more information on finding the right college, visit:

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