"It makes it really hard for them to predict enrollments, and this is another leverage point that you have," he says.

Colleges are also grappling with the rising popularity and legitimacy of for-profit education chains, such as Apollo Group's ( APOL) University of Phoenix and DeVry ( DV).

"You've got these proprietary schools, the private for-profits, who have been around long enough to have invested millions of dollars in their curriculums," Slavonia says. "They actually have really good programs. They're making it real easy to decide to go there versus a lot of the tuition-dependent private universities."

Slavonia says smaller schools might be more inclined to lower their prices to thwart competition from for-profit education centers. He suggests that students make a case for a financial break at the admissions offices of the colleges they're considering. Schools won't discount the tuition directly, but will often defray the cost through scholarships and grants.

"They may call them scholarships, grants or work study, but these are subsidies that reduce the out-of-pocket expense for the student," he says. "There has never been more pressure on them to find those opportunities for students than right now. If you are not going to talk about tuition with them, then you are going to get charged the published rate."

-- Reported by Joe Mont in Boston.

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