Understanding College Costs

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A common myth about college is that it’s too expensive. But once students understand what college really costs, they often discover that higher education is within their reach.

College Costs Vary

The biggest part of college costs is usually tuition. Tuition is the price you pay for classes. Along with tuition, you’ll probably have to pay some other fees to enroll in and attend a college. Tuition and fees vary from college to college.

Other college costs include room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and personal expenses. Just like tuition, these costs vary from college to college. And students can find ways to save money on most of these expenses.

You can see that the cost of college depends a lot on the choices you make. There’s something else you should know: The published price of attending a college is not usually what students actually pay. They often pay less, thanks to financial aid.

Financial Aid Reduces Your Cost

Financial aid is money given or lent to you to help you pay for college. It may be awarded to you based on your financial need alone, or based partly on factors such as proven academic or athletic ability. Most full-time college students receive some form of financial aid.

The actual, final price (or “net price”) you’ll pay for a specific college is the difference between the published price (tuition and fees) to attend that college, minus any grants, scholarships, and education tax benefits for which you may be eligible.

The difference between the published price and the net price can be considerable. For example, in 2015-16, the average published price of in-state tuition and fees for public four-year colleges was about $9,410. But the average net price of in-state tuition and fees for public four-year colleges was only about $3,980.

So don’t let the prices published on college websites discourage you. The number you actually need to know is the estimated net price for you. How can you figure that out? Almost all colleges offer a net price calculator on their website. You can also use the College Board’s Net Price Calculator to estimate your net price at hundreds of colleges.

To find out more about the actual cost of college, read College Costs: FAQs.

FAQs

How many college students get financial aid?

In 2014-15, about two-thirds of full-time students paid for college with the help of financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships. Approximately 57 percent of financial aid dollars awarded to undergraduates was in the form of grants, and 34 percent took the form of federal loans.

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Can I afford to go to college?

Despite all the news stories about rising college prices, a college education is more affordable than most people believe. There are many colleges that provide an excellent educational experience at a price you can manage. Public college prices are much lower than you might expect.

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Does applying for financial aid hurt my chances of being admitted?

You are generally admitted based on your academic performance and the qualities you bring to the campus community. Colleges want to admit a diverse group of students and often use financial aid to achieve that goal. It is very important to apply for financial aid early in the application process, before all of a college’s funds are allocated.

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Do I qualify for aid even if I don’t get straight A’s?

It's true that many scholarships reward student performance in high school, but most government aid is based on financial need. Remember, if you do receive need-based aid, you must remain in good academic standing to renew your aid annually.

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Are private colleges out of my reach?

Although the cost of college is an important factor, focus instead on finding a college that is a good fit — one that meets your academic, career, and personal needs.

You don’t have to rule out “expensive” schools. Keep in mind that private colleges usually offer generous financial aid to attract students from every income level. Plus, financial aid can come from different sources such as scholarships, grants, and loans--so think about net price (not published price), and don’t be afraid to apply to colleges you think you can’t afford.

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Is my family’s income too high to qualify for aid?

Financial aid is intended to make college available to students from many different financial situations. College financial aid officers consider family income, the number of family members in college, medical expenses and many other factors when reviewing your financial aid application. So, even if you think your family income is too high for you to qualify for aid, you should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as soon as possible after Oct. 1. This form determines your eligibility for federal and state student grants, work-study and federal loans.

The best way to get an estimate of how much financial aid a college will offer you — and therefore how much you’ll really pay to go to that college — is to use the college’s net price calculator. Most colleges have these tools on their websites. Net price calculators give you an estimate of your net price for a particular college — that is, the cost of attendance minus the gift aid you might get. Learn more about net price.

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Should I work while I’m attending college?

Students who attempt to juggle full-time work and full-time studies may have difficulty completing their academic programs. However, students who choose to work a moderate amount often do better academically. You may find that working in campus jobs related to your career goals may be a good way to manage college costs, get experience and create new ties with the university.

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Can I try to get my aid award revised?

Some colleges may be willing to review your financial aid package if your financial situation changes. Consider discussing these changes with the financial aid office if your family has experienced an unexpected decrease in income or increase in expenses since you applied for financial aid.

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