Last fall, Carleton College quietly made history.

It became the first Minnesota college to pass the $60,000-a-year mark for tuition, room and board. The elite private school in Northfield has long held the distinction as the state’s most expensive undergraduate institution.

Now others aren’t far behind. This fall, Macalester, St. Olaf, St. Benedict and Gustavus Adolphus colleges all have landed in the $50,000 range.

As prices reach new heights, private college officials throughout Minnesota worry openly that they’re scaring away good prospects. They’re working overtime to spread the message that, with all of the financial aid available, their degrees can be “surprisingly affordable,” as Carleton says on its website.

“Sticker shock is in play,” admits Kirk Carlson, associate dean of admission and financial aid at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, where this year’s room, board and tuition add up to $50,988. “Getting them even to apply … that’s the largest hurdle that a lot of us at private colleges see.”

Julie Sullivan, president of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul ($47,525 this year), agreed.

“It’s something that’s on everyone’s mind,” she said. “We work very hard to encourage all families to apply, because they really don’t know what the cost of attendance is until they get their financial package.”

It’s a theme that was repeated across Minnesota last week, as colleges held their fall open houses for prospective students.

On Thursday, clusters of teenagers and parents could be seen crisscrossing Carleton’s bucolic campus on a picture-perfect fall day.

Effervescent student guides described the joys of campus life (semesters abroad, ultimate Frisbee games, friendly professors and small classes). Rodney Oto, Carleton’s associate dean of admissions, tried to keep the mood light as he led a session for about 40 visitors on paying for college.

The overhead screen listed this year’s cost of attendance: $62,046, not counting books and supplies.

“Normally, when I show that slide, about half the room leaves,” he joked. “So that’s good, you’re still with me.”

Oto pointed out that most students get financial aid packages that average about $45,000 a year, including grants, scholarships and loans.

Statewide, students at private colleges pay about half the published tuition rate, on average, according to the Minnesota Private College Council.

At Carleton, roughly 40 percent of students pay the full freight, according to Paul Thiboutot, vice president and dean of admissions. Everyone else receives financial aid. He notes that Carleton promises to meet the “demonstrated financial need” of every student it accepts, based on family income and other factors.

As a result, he said, Carleton students graduate with about $20,000 in student loans — less than the state average.

But the prospect of a four-year degree costing more than $240,000 clearly weighed on some visitors.

Trina Godfrey of Cambridge, Minn., who was touring the campus with her husband and teenage daughter, said she hadn’t looked at the price ahead of time but knew it would be a stretch. “My husband and I are both teachers, so we probably would have to do some magic to make it work,” she said.

Godfrey said she didn’t want to limit her daughter Lydia’s college search, at least at this point. “It’s nice to look at all the options,” she said. “But yeah, [price] is a huge thing, especially because we have another child in college.”

Sara Johnson, an art teacher from Billings, Mont., said she was torn over the money issue. “Sixty thousand dollars seems crazy to me,” said Johnson, who toured Carleton as well as St. Olaf College, also in Northfield, last week with her daughter Grace, a high school senior. Johnson said she understood the value of such an education, as a liberal arts grad herself. But as a mother, “do you tell your daughter it’s OK to have a $60,000 or more debt when you graduate? I don’t know.”

Her daughter, who also checked out her state school, was even more adamant that price would be a factor. “The University of Montana is not my first choice. But if I get enough merit aid and financial aid, that’s where I would go, because it’s affordable,” she said.

Elianne McMahon-Miller of St. Paul said the price “definitely does scare some people away.” But as she toured Carleton with two of her sons, Gregory and Christopher Miller, she said she was more concerned about them finding the right fit for their talents and interests. “I don’t let that number scare me,” said McMahon-Miller, an engineer with degrees from Stanford and MIT. “I don’t think [cost] should drive the decision alone.”

Last week, Brian Swann, the assistant dean of admissions, did his best to assure prospects that if they’re admitted, they’ll get the help they need to afford a Carleton degree. “We don’t want you to make the choice of paying for your mortgage or paying for your college education,” he told visitors.

For now, officials say, there’s no shortage of students applying to colleges like Carleton, which gets roughly 13 applications for every slot in its freshman class. Both tuition, and applications, have been trending upward for more than a decade.

What they don’t know, says Thiboutot, is how many people don’t bother applying at all. “It’s a hard thing to answer,” he said.