Colleges publish their total cost of attendance (called the “sticker price”) to help prospective students make a budget. However, the amount you actually wind up paying could be less if you’re eligible for grants and scholarships. That’s known as the net price.

A college’s net price is an estimate of how much you and your family will pay out of pocket for education expenses for one school year. The net price is calculated by taking the total cost of attendance — including tuition, room and board and books — and subtracting any grants and scholarships you’re eligible for. You might decide to pay for what’s left through student loans, savings, summer jobs or some other method.

When making your college decision, you should focus on the net price rather than the sticker price. Here’s what you should know about the net price of college, including how to calculate yours.

How to calculate net price

The net price is based on the school’s cost of attendance, the financial aid it provides and the student’s personal circumstances. To calculate your net price at a particular school, head to the school’s financial aid website or use the U.S. Department of Education’s search tool to find the school’s net price calculator. These calculators can help you get a personalized estimate so you can easily compare costs at multiple colleges.

Gathering your documents and entering the information takes about 20 minutes. Here’s what you can expect:

  1. Gather your documents. You’ll get through the process quicker — and get more accurate results — if you have everything on hand before you start. The school should let you know what you need, such as your parents’ most recent tax return, W-2 form and bank statement.
  2. Enter the information. The school will ask for your personal information, such as name, address and birthdate, along with details about your intended major and start date. It may also ask about your academic record from high school, such as GPA, class rank, ACT scores and SAT scores if available.
  3. Read the report. Based on the details you provide, the school estimates scholarships, grants and federal student loans you might be eligible for. It’ll subtract that amount from the school’s cost of attendance to arrive at your net price.
  4. Save the information. Download the report and save it for your records, and use the information to compare prices and financial aid across multiple schools. If the schools you’re comparing use the College Board’s Net Price Calculator, you can create an account and save your information there.

Limitations of net price calculators

Although colleges are required to provide a net price calculator for prospective students, they may not provide a completely accurate price tag. Be aware of these limitations:

  • Typically geared toward first-year undergraduates. These calculators usually estimate what a first-year undergraduate student might pay for their first year. Continuing, graduate, transfer, international and part-time students may need to contact the school’s financial aid office for a customized estimate.
  • Ignores talent-based aid. The net price calculator may not account for certain financial aid, such as an athletic or arts-based scholarship.
  • Not all standardized. Every school uses different information and formulas to calculate net price, and some use an out-of-date cost of attendance.
  • Aid isn’t guaranteed. The calculator estimates your aid but doesn’t guarantee it. You’ll still need to apply to the school, fill out the FAFSA form and receive your award letter to find out the exact amounts.

How much should you expect to pay for college?

Your expected tuition and fees will depend on your school — whether it’s in state or out of state, public or private, two-year or four-year. The average price of tuition and fees for full-time undergraduates, as reported by College Board, are:

Average sticker price for tuition and fees Average net price for tuition and fees
Private nonprofit four-year college $39,400 $14,630
Public four-year college (out-of-state residents) $28,240 Not available
Public four-year college (in-state residents) $10,940 $2,250

Of course, tuition and fees aren’t the only expenses you’ll need to think about. Room and board, books and supplies, transportation and other expenses will increase your cost of attendance. Factor in these costs when researching schools. Your financial aid letter should spell out whether you’ll get a break on certain costs.

What if the net price is more than you can afford?

If you can’t afford the net costs of going to college, you may be able to apply for need-based financial aid. For example, the federal government offers Pell Grants to undergraduate students with substantial financial needs. Currently, you can receive up to $6,895 per school year; in most cases, these grants don’t need to be paid back.

You can also look into getting a part-time job through your school’s work-study program. This typically involves working on campus (for instance, in the library or as a tour guide) but can also apply to certain off-campus jobs. You’ll make at least the federal minimum wage, but your total award will depend on your particular need and the availability of funds at your school.

The bottom line

Higher education can be expensive, depending on the school you attend and whether you’re an in-state resident. But thanks to financial aid, many students pay less than their college’s sticker price. When you’re comparing the cost of schools, use the published price only as a starting point. You can use a net price calculator to estimate your potential net price and then check your financial aid award letter for final details.

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