The Price of College is Not What You Actually Pay


Published:

Photo courtesy of shutterstock.com

If you’ve ever experienced a sudden, unexplained rise in your cable bill, you’ve probably experienced something like this: After calling the cable company and enduring 20 straight minutes of deafeningly loud advertisements for the latest sequel to "Horrible Bosses," you finally get an operator on the phone. You express your displeasure and threaten to switch to another company. Without hesitation, the representative immediately pitches you a new “limited time offer” that includes more channels for less money than you were originally paying. This offer wasn’t listed on the website or advertised anywhere, but must simply be reserved for irate customers with one foot out the door.

The lesson here is that cable companies are not exactly beacons of transparency — unfortunately, and this may surprise you — neither are colleges. Most college-bound students and their families eye the list price of a prospective school when deciding if it is a financially viable option. Yet, in the modern higher education marketplace, the list price and the net price, that is, what the average student actually pays, frequently have little to do with one another. Grasping the difference between the stated and actual tuition costs can revolutionize the way you shop for colleges and can greatly expand your economically sound post-secondary options.

Don’t believe the sticker price

If you shop for colleges the way you shop for other high-expense items  automobiles for example  you would be doing yourself a disservice and greatly limiting your options. While car dealers, like cable companies, are not exactly known for their straightforward pricing methods, we still enter a dealership with a general idea of what we can afford. If our budget allows us to target pre-owned Toyotas with a list price of  $14,000 and nothing a penny higher, then we can be pretty darn sure that even if we are the best negotiator in the entire world, the $40,000 Lexus in the same showroom is not going to be realistic option for us. Evaluating college costs, however, could not be a different ballgame.

Let’s look at the example of Beantown Barbara, a Massachusetts resident and accomplished high school student who would love to attend a small, private liberal arts school but is being told by her middle class parents that this is off the table unless she wants to take out massive loans. Barbara had been interested in high-caliber schools like Reed College in Portland, Oregon, Vassar in New York, or even Wellesley College, the prestigious women’s college right in her own backyard. Her SATs and grades are likely good enough to gain acceptance at all three, but she and her family are turned off by the Lexus-level pricing, as each school costs in excess of $40,000 per year in tuition alone. Wanting to avoid accumulating unnecessary undergraduate debt, Barbara decides that UMASS, at an in-state price of $14,-000, is probably her best bet.

Unbeknownst to Barbara and her family is that Reed, Vassar, and Wellesley  through generous merit and need-based aid opportunities  actually have average net-prices only slightly higher than UMASS. Amazingly, all three private schools have an average net price (again, what students actually pay) of under $20,000, under half of their respective sticker prices. That doesn’t mean that Beantown Barbara would have been offered exactly that price. It could have been higher,but it also could have been lower. Either way, it would have been worth applying and finding out.

Net price by income

Moving a few hours westward for a moment for our next example. As high school student in Ohio, Buckeye Bob finished in the top 10 percent of his class and kicked-butt on his last attempt at the ACT. His dream is to attend a selective liberal arts school somewhat close to home, preferably in Ohio. Bob shares with his parents that  his top choices are Oberlin, Kenyon, and College of Wooster. Bob’s parents beam with pride until they see the sticker price of these schools — all over $40,000 for tuition.

Bob’s parents are solidly middle class, earning $67,000 a year. The assume they are caught in financial aid no-man’s land, earning too much income to qualify for government grants but not enough to cover the steep tuition costs at a private school. Discouraged, Bob looks at Ohio’s state school options. He knows that he’ll be fine attending a school like Ohio State, Cleveland State, or The University of Akron, but he wishes there was some way he could have a shot at his true best-fit schools.

Fortunately for Bob, his guidance counselor understands the concept of net-price at private schools like Oberlin, Kenyon and The College of Wooster. These institutions tend to be generous with aid and take income strongly into consideration. While Oberlin has a sticker price of over $46,000 a year, the net price declines as you go down the income ladder. The average family whose income exceeds $110,000 pays a bit less than that at $40,000. Families making between $75,000-$110,000 get a sizable discount, with the average falling just below $26,000. Those with an income level in the $48,000-$75,000 range, like Buckeye Bob’s family, pay under $18,000 in tuition. At The College of Wooster, families in that income range pay a little over $16,000. Kenyon College’s average net price for a student like Bob comes in even lower at roughly $11,000.

Most of the state schools in Ohio cost somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 grand per year. Most likely, a university like Ohio State will still cost Bob less than his dream schools, but the revelation about net price may still have moved a school like Oberlin from a complete fantasy to a potential reality.

Don’t forget to select a quality financial safety school

Discovering the concept of net-price should lead you to radically alter the way you go about selecting target colleges — you should feel freed up to aim high and dream big. However, it is crucial to also come up with back-up plan that is a sure thing from a financial end. Most college-bound students are aware of the importance of having a “safety school,” an institution where obtaining admission is pretty darn close to a statistical guarantee. However, for anyone without unlimited funds, selecting a “financial safety school” may be of equal importance.

No one likes to consider doomsday scenarios, but if you thoughtfully selected a quality financial safety school, you can now breathe a little easier as you await financial and merit aid notifications from you top-choice schools. In our examples above, UMASS and Ohio State would have made perfectly good financial safety schools (assuming that they were also “safeties” from an academic standpoint) because they were affordable (even at 100 percent of the list price) and not schools that our sample students found undesirable. In picking a financial safety school, don’t just pick a random school that happens to be relatively inexpensive. Target a school that you would genuinely like to attend, considering for location, availability of majors of interest, extracurricular activities, etc.

Understanding that the list price and the net price are two very different concepts will help to broaden your college search and may just put your dream schools within financial reach. Don’t believe us? Call your cable company today and start enjoying the full gamut of premium channels for a fraction of the price. 

College Transitions recently published net price data for every selective institution in the United States. Please click here to view the list.

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Please visit our website—www.collegetransitions.com—to learn more.

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College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Learn more at collegetransitions.com

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Website »

More information

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Cost: $18/adult, $12 ages 12 and younger

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Raleigh Little Theatre
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Raleigh, NC  27607
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More information

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Cost: Free

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Historic Yates Mill County Park
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More information

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Cost: $4-$12

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View map »


Telephone: 704-636-2889
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More information

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Cost: $13/members and $18/nonmembers. Free for ages 6 and younger

Where:
North Carolina Museum of Art
2110 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Telephone: 919-839-6262
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Do you love owls? If so, join us to learn all about them! Discover these amazing raptors' adaptations and why they are important to the ecosystem. We will be practicing our different owl calls and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Enjoy spring open house featuring seven model homes on the tour, as well as kite-flying demonstration by seasoned professionals. Start your tour at the information center, and get ready for...

Cost: Free

Where:
Briar Chapel Information Center
1342 Briar Chapel Parkway
Chapel Hill, NC  27516
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Sponsor: Newland Communities
Telephone: 888-249-9429
Contact Name: Cherith Andes
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Want to get inside Historic Yates Mill? Join us for a half-hour tour (starting at 1, 1:30, 2, 2:30 or 3 p.m.) to view the main power drive and milling machinery while exploring the mill's history...

Cost: $5/Adult, $4/Senior (ages 60+), $3/Child (ages 7-16), kids ages 6 & under: free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Ziggy is a shy boy who would rather stay at home and watch television than explore the island of Jamaica. Over the course of his onstage journey, with some help from his friend Nansi, he...

Cost: $18/adult, $12 ages 12 and younger

Where:
Raleigh Little Theatre
301 Pogue St.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Harris Lake County Park is home to several species of salamanders. Join us as we learn about these elusive amphibians and see some up close. All ages. Meet in the Educational Garden at the picnic...

Cost: Free

Where:
Harris Lake County Park
2112 County Park Dr.
New Hill, NC  27562
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Sponsor: Harris Lake County Park
Telephone: 919-387-4342
Contact Name: Joanne St. Clair
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Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist...

Cost: $25 and up

Where:
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Durham Stake presents a family-friendly show featuring favorite Dr. Seuss books all together in one story. Join the Cat in the Hat, Horton the Elephant, and many others on a journey through...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
1050 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd.
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
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Sponsor: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Contact Name: Bethany Fager
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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is putting on the hilarious, yet sometimes tender, musical production of Seussical on March 15-16 and 22-23. It is a family-friendly show that...

Cost: Free

Where:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
1050 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
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Sponsor: Durham Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
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The Raleigh Boychoir will reach new heights as our choristers and community present Dr. Tim Sharp’s “High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass.” Welcoming area boys to perform in...

Cost: Free

Where:
First Baptist Church
99 N Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Sponsor: Raleigh Boychoir
Telephone: 919-881-9259
Contact Name: Erin O'Hara
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Ziggy is a shy boy who would rather stay at home and watch television than explore the island of Jamaica. Over the course of his onstage journey, with some help from his friend Nansi, he...

Cost: $18/adult, $12 ages 12 and younger

Where:
Raleigh Little Theatre
301 Pogue St.
Raleigh, NC  27607
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Participants develop their naturalist skills and understanding of local nature. Ages 5-8 with parent. Register online. Choose course #121675.

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
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Celtic Woman celebrates Ireland's rich musical and cultural heritage, while continuing its remarkable legacy of introducing some of Ireland's most talented singers and musicians onto the...

Cost: $43 and up

Where:
Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian St.
Durham, NC  27701
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Set in 1860’s Bangkok, the musical tells the story of the unconventional relationship that develops between the King of Siam and Anna Leonowens, a British schoolteacher whom the modernist...

Cost: $25 and up

Where:
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
2 E. South St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Shop for gently used kids' clothing, toys, furniture, baby equipment and more. See the website for shopping hours.

Cost: Free

Where:
Hayes Barton Baptist Church
1800 Glenwood Ave.
Raleigh, NC
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Annual Guides

Education Guide

The 2018-19 Education Guide offers 678 education resources in the Triangle, including area preschools, private schools, public school systems, charter schools, boarding schools, academic resources and an Exceptional Child special section.

The Triangle Go-To Guide

Our Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. Plus, find out who our 2018 Readers' Favorites are.