Tuition tops $50,000 a year at lots of private colleges, but that’s not what many students actually pay. These days, college tuition is like hotel room rates. There’s a steep official price, but people often get big breaks—if they know how. When students are accepted by colleges, many are informed that they qualify for discounts of a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars per year, with the largest discounts coming from private colleges. Discounts typically are called “­academic” or “merit” scholarships even if the student is not a classroom star. (This is separate from need-based ­financial aid.)

To obtain and increase discounts…

Apply to several schools where you would be in the top 25% of the class based on SAT scores and GPA. Colleges use big discounts to lure these students away from more prestigious schools. lists “average” and “high” SAT scores and GPAs for each college’s most recent class—the midpoint between these offers a rough sense of what’s required to be in the top 25%.

Don’t apply “early decision.” Students who are accepted in early decisions are locked into attending that college, so they can’t leverage offers from ­competing schools. (Applying “early action” is fine—that doesn’t lock the student into ­attending.)

When you receive discount offers from colleges, wait a few weeks. When a college notifies a student that he/she has been accepted (along with discount offers), it may not have offered all of the discounts it can afford, leaving room to revise offers.

Request a match. If one college has offered you a better discount or lower ­tuition than another college, call your preferred school’s financial-aid department a few weeks before the May 1 deadline. Ask whether it can match the competing school’s offer. Say that you want to avoid taking on excessive debt, and ask the preferred school whether it can get closer to the competing school’s offer. There’s no downside to trying this, and it often leads to increased discounts. (Even if there is no competing offer, it’s worth asking whether a bigger discount is available.) Note: The competing ­offer that you cite must be from a school that is equal or close to your preferred school’s ranking.