College Tuition: Beware of Sticker Shock!


Could you imagine paying over $50,000 a year to attend college? What about $60,000? It may sound crazy, but according to this year’s list of most expensive colleges there are plenty of schools that will set you back a pretty penny. In fact, if you research the Internet, you’ll find dozens of ‘Most Expensive’ or ‘Highest Tuition’ posts and articles, all with figures so high it would cause anyone with chrometophobia (a fear of money) to break out in a cold sweat. Fortunately, many students do not end up paying the full price of admission to these schools. Before you cross any colleges off your list, take a look at the ‘list price’ versus the ‘actual price’ first. For example, Sarah Lawrence College tops the list of most expensive colleges with a whopping $61,236 for the 2012-2013 school year. The price reflects the total cost, which includes tuition, housing and required fees, but if you are a low-income student, you can expect to receive around $36,202 in financial aid assistance. That means the actual cost of attendance would be around $25,034 per year. Sounds a bit more reasonable, yes? If Stanford University is on your list, the price can be as low as $4,496 a year, instead of the listed $55,918. That’s only $903 more than the actual price to attend California State University at Long Beach, but how is that possible? It all starts with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is sent to prospective colleges. Depending on your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and Cost of Attendance (COA), colleges will offer you grants and scholarships, which can significantly lower your out-of-pocket expenses. The trick is finding out how much you can expect to receive at the schools before determining if they are out of reach financially. That’s where the Net Price Calculator comes in handy. Colleges are required to have these on their websites, to give you a clearer picture of what your total cost of attendance will be and how much financial aid you can expect to receive, based on your family’s income. Unfortunately, six out of ten students fail to use these calculators when researching college costs and make the mistake of ruling out some of the more expensive schools simply based on sticker price. That’s like walking into a car dealership and forgetting to ask about incentives or refusing to haggle for a better price. So, before you take any college off your list, do a little homework. Research colleges by using several of the free online resources, such as, attend some college fairs and review college websites to determine which will be the right fit. Then, check out their Net Price Calculator to see what your ‘actual’ cost of attendance will be as an incoming freshman. It’s also important to ask the colleges about financial aid availability for subsequent years, as some colleges have been known to front-load offers to get you in the door and then significantly reduce aid for the following years. Once you have the complete picture, you’ll be much better equipped to make an educated decision about which colleges may be out of reach financially. Don’t forget that federal and institutional financial aid is not your only option for free money for college; private scholarships can significantly reduce your overall student debt and may help level the playing field when choosing the college that is perfect for you. Want to get a better picture of the differences between list price and actual price for college tuition rates? Check out this infographic from

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