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Getting real about college costs

How can you figure out the real price of college?

When exploring the cost of college with your student, you may hear different terms including sticker price and net price. Let’s unravel some of the mystery of the real price of college and how to pay for it.

Sticker price vs. net price

All colleges do have a listed or listed price — that is, the cost of college without any financial aid applied. When you take the sticker price and subtract grants and scholarships (aid that doesn’t have to be repaid) you get the school’s net price.

Today, when you visit a college’s website, you’ll likely find a net price calculator to help estimate the school’s net price, based on some information that you and your student provide. It’s designed to give a general picture of the school’s cost rather than just the sticker price alone. Net price calculators ask for a variety of information, a few examples are:

  • GPA
  • SAT scores
  • Expected family contribution

Financial aid

Some net price calculators also provide information about the kinds of financial aid your student may be offered, such as federal student loans and work-study jobs. While this information is just an estimate, it can give you a better idea of how much your student may need to borrow at one school versus another. Some schools may be able to offer more grant and scholarship aid; at others, student loans may make up the bigger portion of the financial aid package.

Student loans

If you’re taking on student loans to pay for college, it’s important to know the difference between federal and private student loans. The fundamental difference is that the federal government underwrites federal student loans. Student loan lenders and financial institutions, like banks or credit unions, offer private student loans.

It’s also important to be realistic about how much you can afford to borrow for school — remember, you will need to pay back the loan, with interest, when you graduate. Take this into consideration when deciding on your school.

Trimming costs

As you get a better sense of the real cost of specific schools, you can start to consider ways to potentially trim costs. An in-state school with fewer travel costs may start to make more sense as you crunch the numbers. You also may want to explore reciprocity agreements available at schools in neighboring states: Many states have programs that allow residents to attend university in another state, without having to pay out-of-state tuition.

After looking at the numbers together, your student may want to consider dual enrollment courses, explore more housing options, or consider working while in college to offset some costs.

Learn more about financing college through Get College Ready. Here, you can calculate college expenses, learn about financial aid, and explore how private student loans may work for you.

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Caroline Hanson
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Caroline Hanson

Communications Consultant at Wells Fargo
Copywriter at Wells Fargo.

She’s experienced in planning and paying for college both as a student and parent. With one child through college and two more a few years away from it, she is right there with you on the college-planning journey. A creative pro with years logged in journalism, public relations, and marketing, she’s been writing for the College Planning Blog since its launch in 2006.
Caroline Hanson
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