It’s easy to understand why students and parents think college is expensive. Newspaper headlines and social media would have us believe that every college costs $70,000 a year to attend, and that most students leave college with debt that exceeds $100,000.

The good news is: that simply isn’t true.

$$$ Approximate Cost Example College Example College Actual Cost
$5,000 or less Santa Barbara City College $1,400
$+ $10,000 University of Iowa $9,000
$$ $15,000 Ohio University $11,900
$$+ $20,000 Regent University $17,300
$$$ $25,000 Spalding University $24,000
$$$+ $30,000 Hillsdale College $26,700
$$$$ $35,000 Calvin College $33,100
$$$$+ $40,000 University of Dallas $38,800
$$$$$ $45,000 Ithaca College $42,900
$$$$$+ $50,0000 MIT $49,900
$$$$$$ $55,0000 Sarah Lawrence College $54,000
$$$$$$$+ more than $55,000 Columbia University $57,200

College is likely to be one of the biggest investments a family will make, but a closer look at cost shows that the average tuition at an in-state public university is still less than $10,000 a year, and the average college graduate will earn about $1 million more in a lifetime than a worker who has only a high school diploma.

That makes college a wise investment—as long as there’s a way to pay for it. And there is.

The True Cost of College

How Much Does College Really Cost?

Any discussion about the cost of college needs to begin with a clear understanding of what it costs to actually go to college—and if you think that’s just tuition, it’s time to think again.

Tuition is what you pay directly to the college for the privilege of being one of its officially enrolled students, attending its classes, and, eventually, receiving one of its degrees. From the college’s perspective, tuition covers the basic costs of offering classes, keeping libraries up to date, paying professors, and making sure the lights stay on. But for students, tuition is only the beginning of the expenses involved in attending college.

Tuition is what you pay directly to the college for the privilege of being one of its officially enrolled students, attending its classes, and, eventually, receiving one of its degrees.

There’s also the cost of books and related learning materials (art supplies for art majors, laboratory fees for science majors); expenses related to getting to and from campus (maintaining a car if you’re commuting to campus, or coming home a few times a semester if you live at school); room and board (if you aren’t living at home); and enough spare money for “incidentals,” like furnishing your dorm room or apartment, buying some new clothes occasionally (and washing them!), getting a pizza or two every week, and so on.

Most colleges call this all-encompassing total the cost of attendance, and it’s wise to use that phrase when asking a college about expenses. The tuition at one college might be less than at another, but if the room and board is higher at the second college, it could actually cost more to go there. The same is true if a college is farther away from home. The tuition might be less, but you still have to pay to get there, and that costs money, too. When a college gives you their cost of attendance, they’re taking everything into consideration. This is the best way to compare college costs.

Not Paying Sticker Price

It’s also important to keep in mind that many of the more-expensive colleges have ways to reduce the cost of attendance for most, if not all, of their students. This is especially true for private schools, which make up most of the pricier colleges. This list shows you the schools that offer the biggest discounts between the advertised cost of attendance and what most students actually pay. If a school you’re interested in isn’t on this list, talk with their financial aid office, and ask about the average financial aid award. A school that first seemed out of reach might suddenly be within your budget.

Another tool that can help you plan your college budget is the net price calculator. Many students don’t know about the discounts colleges offer, and since so many colleges offer them, the US government now requires every college to put a net price calculator on their website. This makes it easy for families to obtain some basic information and get a general idea of what they would be expected to pay for college. Just as important, most net price calculators give an indication of how large a loan the student or parents would have to take out each year. (Want to see a net price calculator in action? Give this one a try.)

In working with a net price calculator, keep in mind that they have some limits. Most don’t ask you about your grades or test scores, so any financial aid information they give you doesn’t include any merit scholarship you might be eligible for—and that can reduce your costs even more. In addition, you may have some financial circumstances that are unusual. If that’s the case, the calculator can’t really take those into consideration, and it’s best to see this as an estimate.

Applying for Financial Aid—FAFSA

Almost every college requires students and parents to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. This form is updated each year, and high school seniors and their families can begin filing the FAFSA on October 1 of their senior year in high school. The FAFSA must be completed every year the student attends college, so this isn’t a “once-and-done” form. Rules for eligibility change every year, and so does your financial information, so make sure to file a new FAFSA every year you’re in college.

Preparing to complete the FAFSA is pretty easy, as long as you have last year’s tax information handy. If you don’t, FAFSA has a data retrieval tool you can use to pull the information you filed with the IRS and place it on your FAFSA. Combined with some basic financial information (like how much your home is worth, and how much you owe on it), you’ll find the FAFSA will take about an hour of your time—and it gets easier every time you file it.

Almost every college requires students and parents to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

Once you file the FAFSA, the Federal government will determine how much Federal financial aid you qualify for. This is an important first step, since the colleges want the US government to pay as much as possible for your college expenses. Once the government reviews your file, they will then pass your FAFSA information along to the colleges you’ve listed on FAFSA, so they can use state, local, and private funds to determine how much aid the colleges can provide you.

In most cases, FAFSA requires the financial information of both the student and the parents/guardians of the student. There are some cases where parental income isn’t taken into consideration, but for most students graduating from high school and going straight on to college, at least one parent will have to provide financial information.

Other Financial Aid Forms

The FAFSA asks for general financial aid information, and some colleges feel they need a more complete picture of a family’s finances before the college can award financial aid. As a result, many colleges will ask parents and students to file a second financial aid form with more specific information. For many colleges, this form is the CSS Profile, and it costs money to file this form. Other colleges will have their own institutional financial aid form that you also have to file, asking for additional information.

Some families question if all of this information is really necessary to determine whether they qualify for financial aid. That’s easy to understand, especially if families are hesitant to share their financial information with strangers. On the other hand, many families complete the FAFSA and feel the form doesn’t really tell a complete story about the family’s finances. A large savings account may be the parent’s retirement fund, or the family may be providing for the care of a loved one that doesn’t live with them. This is the kind of information the other forms can identify that will make it easier for families to qualify for aid—but in order to receive the aid, you have to tell them your entire story.

Tax Forms and Financial Aid

It might seem like the best way to give a complete picture of your finances is to simply send copies of your tax forms to your colleges, but you’ll want to hold on to those. Some colleges use that information to verify what you’ve told them on FAFSA, so they’ll ask you for them when they need them. Sending tax forms ahead of time could actually delay your receiving financial aid, or it could lead to your forms being shared with others who don’t really have any input on the kind of aid you receive. In the interest of your privacy, keep your tax forms at home, until the college asks for them.

If you file all the required forms, and you feel like the financial aid office of the college still doesn’t have a complete picture of your financial situation, call them. This is the one thing parents are very hesitant to do, but it’s also the most helpful thing they can do. A five-minute conversation with a financial aid officer can shed light on the numbers you’ve submitted and help the college understand your complete financial picture. It can also speed up the verification process. Once the college knows your situation, they can tell you, either over the phone or in writing, just what you need to share with them to complete your financial aid application.

The Student Aid Report

Once a college has all the information they need to review your application, you will receive a Student Aid Report, or SAR. The SAR is a summary of the kinds of financial aid you are eligible for from both the Federal government and the college. Typically, aid falls into one of three categories:

  • Grants and Scholarships: This is money that is given to you for college, with the expectation that it does not have to be paid back. Some grants and scholarships have conditions attached to them—like maintaining a certain GPA or completing all the classes you’ve signed up for—but as long as you meet those basic ground rules, you’re all set.
  • Work/Study: This is money the student receives for college by working (usually at a job on campus) during the semester they are attending classes. This work can include anything from helping out in the cafeteria to checking out books in the library, and students typically have a choice of the kind of work they complete. Most of the earnings from this work go back to the college, but in some cases, the student will end up with some spending money for every pay period. It’s important to keep an eye out for the number of hours a student will be expected to work each week. Generally, students should have fewer than 10 hours of work each week in their work/study package, in order to keep up with their studies.
  • Loans: Loans are funds for college that the student or parent is expected to pay back. In some cases, the interest on the loan is far below that of loans offered by banks, and most student loans don’t have to have payments made on them until six months after the student stops going to college. There are a wide variety of loans and loan repayment programs, so students and parents will want to be familiar with the conditions of each loan before they accept it.

There are two important points to remember when reading an SAR. First, every college has their own version of an SAR, so no two look the same. This can make it very challenging to compare financial aid offers between schools. If you have any questions about your report, call the financial aid office, and ask them to explain, in simple terms, how much money you’re receiving for grant, work/study, and loan—and then ask about the repayment terms for the loan.

Second, it’s very important to know that you can turn down any part of a financial aid offer, and still accept the other parts. If a college has offered you $4,000 in grant and $5,000 in loan, you can accept the grant money and turn down the loan. That likely means you will have to find another way to get that $5,000, but if you don’t want the loan, that’s OK with the college.

Private Scholarships

Most students who receive support paying for college receive that funding through the Federal government or the college itself, but some students have success finding private scholarships on their own. These scholarships are typically offered through companies or foundations, and are often one-time awards that can’t be renewed.

The best place to find these private scholarships is on a scholarship search website. Many of these sites give students the option of registering their email address when they conduct a scholarship search. The site then saves the student’s information, including the kinds of scholarships the student is interested in. This way, if a new scholarship becomes available, the website can contact the student and let them know they can apply for the new scholarship.

Despite the social media claims that millions of dollars go unclaimed in scholarships every year, it’s important to remember how competitive private scholarships can be. Thousands of students and parents subscribe to online scholarship websites, which means there are thousands of applicants for any scholarship that appears on that website. This doesn’t mean students shouldn’t apply, but it is important to remember that most of these scholarships end up going to others—and even if you do receive the scholarship, it’s typically good for only one year.

Strategies in Paying for College

Financial aid is freely available at many colleges, but some families still find themselves in need of creative approaches to pay for college, especially if they want to avoid taking out loans. Some families have found success with these approaches:

  • AP and CLEP Testing: One way to reduce the cost of college is to earn credits by taking an exam that shows you already know the material covered in a college class. The most popular credit-by-exam programs are the Advanced Placement (AP) and the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), and while not every college accepts these scores, students can save up to a year’s worth of tuition by scoring well on these tests.
  • Early College or Dual Enrollment Programs: Many high schools offer students a chance to get a head start on their college courses by taking them as part of their high school curriculum. Classes in many of these programs are paid for by the local school district, and students in some programs can complete two years of college classes in high school.
  • Start Locally and Transfer: Other students have found a great way to save on college costs by enrolling at a local community college before transferring to a four-year school. Students choosing this option will want to work closely with the transfer admission office at the four-year college they’d like to attend, to make sure all the community college classes they take will transfer to a four-year degree. But if they do well, they could also qualify for scholarships offered only to transfer students, through programs like Phi Theta Kappa, the community college honor society.

Conclusion

Making the most of your college experience requires you to do two things at the same time. First, you have to discover the kinds of colleges that best meet your interests and needs. Second, you have to learn which of those colleges best meet your budget, keeping in mind that the money invested in a college education today will pay off big dividends in the future.

Finding the colleges that meets both of these needs isn’t always easy, but with a little digging, you’ll see there are schools that offer the right blend of opportunity, support, and challenge, all at a price you’ll be happy to pay—knowing the experience can change your life forever.

Questions & Activities

Take a moment to look at the net price calculator for any three colleges. The best way to find a college’s net price calculator is to type “Net Price Calculator for (Name of College)” in an online search. What do the results tell you about that college? Is it affordable for you? What other information would help you understand the costs associated with that college?

Take a moment to explore the FAFSA website, especially the sections marked “Types of Aid” and “Who Gets Aid?” How does this information help you prepare for college?

Do a quick search of private scholarships. What kinds of scholarships are out there that surprised you?

Many colleges reward hard-working students who earn good grades with merit scholarships. Take a look at this list to see what you might qualify for.

College admissions expert, Patrick J. O’Connor, PhD, is associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood School in metropolitan Detroit. A past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and the Michigan ACAC, Patrick also teaches “Counseling in the College Selection Process” as both a graduate class and a professional development program. In 2017–18, he served as the inaugural School Counselor Ambassador Fellow with the US Department of Education, keeping the Department informed of current trends and issues of interest to school counselors.