Going to College: Sticker Price vs. Net Price

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard that college is expensive, right? For many families, it’s right up there with the cost of purchasing a home. And because of the steep cost of a new home, you probably spend some time thinking about what you really want. You likely go through the process of getting pre-approved and meander around more than a few open houses before you make a final decision. I would guess that’s the same thing for almost everything you purchase in life — you work hard for your money, so you want to make sure you get the most in return, right?

In my time working in college admissions offices, I’ve been shocked at how little families know about financing college. Consequently, a school may throw out a sticker price, and a lot of families agree to pay it because, well, college is expensive. But when I say families agree to pay, I mean they’re likely financing the cost using student and parent loans.

A school’s sticker price — also called its Total Cost of Attendance — covers five areas: tuition and fees, room and board, books (buy used!), transportation, and personal expenses. The first two are set by the school, but the latter three are influenced primarily by your lifestyle choices. So now is the time to develop some inexpensive tastes! Since you can heavily influence the latter three and most students receive some sort of financial assistance (i.e., grants, scholarships, loans), very few students pay full sticker price. Rather, the vast majority of students pay less — in some cases, significantly less! For instance, the average student attending a private school only pays 48% of the sticker price. That’s almost half off!

Yet, how many of you have written off a school simply based on its sticker price? According to U.S. News & World Report, approximately 55% of you have! As someone who has worked with students at four-year, two-year, public, and private institutions, I can tell you that fit is a crucial indicator of whether a student will be successful at a college, but so often families let a sticker price overrule fit. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a student say that she likes one school just to hear her parents follow-up with, “but I told her we can’t afford that.” Accordingly, the daughter only applies to schools assumingly with a lower sticker price. Nothing wrong with public, state schools — I’m a product of three — but they’re not the right fit for every student.

Yes, college is expensive. However, most students don’t pay the full sticker price. The trouble is that you don’t know what you’re going to pay until you go through the process of applying to each school. That’s exactly why we’ve created a True Cost Calculator to help families estimate what each school could cost — your true cost. Based on the school’s cost of attendance (AKA sticker price), its average financial aid award package, and your family’s income range, we can estimate what you may pay. 

There are thousands of schools in this country because college is not a one-size-fits-all experience. If you knew ahead of time what a school would cost, would you be more open to exploring it? This brings us back to getting pre-approved for a house. Knowing your pre-approval amount allows you to freely look with your true budget. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do the same things with schools? Now you can, and, subsequently, we believe you’ll make a more informed decision on where to attend college. A more informed decision usually leads to a better decision, and our hope is that a better decision will lead to a college degree and job in your dream profession. Our goal is to help you find the best college fit with the least amount of debt possible, so schedule a meeting with our College and Career Planners today.


CommunityAmerica Credit Union has College and Career Planners ready to assist you through all the stages of planning for higher education and beyond. From calculators and checklists to deeper discussions about financial aspects, we can help. Our goal is to help you reach yours.

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