The Price of College is Not What You Actually Pay


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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

Expert advice for finding the right fit


About This Blog

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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June 2018

Run Club meets every Sunday at 8 a.m. in Midtown Raleigh or Wake Forest. Stroller friendly; children invited. 

Cost: $10/run or $100/annual pass

Where:
Optimist Park Community Center/Greenways
5900 Whittier Drive
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Sponsor: FIT4MOM
Telephone: 919-348-0472
Contact Name: Missy Currin
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Dads play free mini golf with each paying player at regular price.

Cost: $7.99/person

Where:
Adventure Landing
3311 Capital Blvd.
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Sponsor: Adventure Landing
Telephone: 191-987-21688
Contact Name: Mike Collins
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Join Mindful Families of Durham, a Buddhist-inspired spiritual community that supports area parents, caregivers, and their children in the practice of mindfulness and the understanding of the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Erwin Road
Durham, NC  27705
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Sponsor: Mindful Families of Durham
Contact Name: Adam, Laura, Josh, Sumi
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Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
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Take Dad to enjoy food trucks, live music and more at Durham Central Park's food truck rodeo. All ages.

Cost: Free. Food available for purchase.

Where:
Durham Central Park
501 Foster St.
Durham, NC  27701
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For almost 200 years, farmers brought their wheat and corn to what is now Yates Mill to have their grains ground into flour and meal. Today, you can stop by the Yates Mill visitor center to see a...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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It`s 1863 at Yates Mill, and the yard is alive with activity! Step back in time with our 19th-century costumed interpreters and watch the millstones at work grinding corn into meal.  Tour fee:...

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

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Come out to the millpond and fish the old fashioned way - we'll provide you with a cane pole, tackle, and bait, along with basic instructions and assistance with identifying fish species. You'll...

Cost: $1.00 per person

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
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Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
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Weekly basic skills cooking class offered for children ages 5-10 at Whole Foods North Raleigh.  This free class meets at the cafe each Tuesday at 4 p.m. and is offered by registering...

Cost: Free

Where:
Whole Foods Market (North Raleigh)
8710 Six Forks Road
Raleigh, NC  27615
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Learn about law issues including divorce, separation, child custody, child support, landlord-tenant issues, and more. A local attorney will lead the discussion. This event is free and free...

Cost: Free

Where:
Compass Center for Women and Families
210 Henderson Street
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
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Sponsor: Compass Center for Women and Families
Telephone: 919-968-4610
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Every year on June 21, we enjoy the most hours of sunlight during the whole year. Discover the science and cultural celebrations behind this special summer day. Make a pretty suncatcher to hang in...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Enjoy "Kate Writes a Song."

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
760 S.E. Maynard Rd.
Cary, NC  27511
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Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
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Budding naturalists ages 2-6 enjoy a craft, engaging activity, and guided walk along the greenway. Register online. Choose course #219939.

Cost: $2/person

Where:
Walnut Creek Wetland Park
950 Peterson St.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-2760
Contact Name: Stacie Hagwood
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Join Preston Sharp, a 12-year-old who was recently recognized by President Trump at the State of the Union, to honor U.S. veterans by placing flags and flowers on their graves...

Cost: Free

Where:
Raleigh National Cemetery
501 Rock Quarry Rd.
Raleigh, NC
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Telephone: 919-906-7592

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Join park staff for an informal fishing experience for the whole family. Take your own poles or borrow one from the park through the Tackle Loaner Program. Bait and basic instruction are...

Cost: Free

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Parkway
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 919-460-3355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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Little eyes, ears and hearts are always watching and learning how to navigate life through Moms. Explore what it means to manage your mind and how important it is for your family as well as...

Cost: $10

Where:
Center for Excellence
3803B Computer Drive, Suite 106B
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Sponsor: Tracy Nolin Beerman
Telephone: 919-612-4608
Contact Name: Tracy
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Every year on June 21, we enjoy the most hours of sunlight during the whole year. Discover the science and cultural celebrations behind this special summer day. Make a pretty suncatcher to hang in...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

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Join us at Chatham Marketplace in Pittsboro every Thursday at 10 a.m. for a casual storytime on the porch or even out in the yard. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Chatham Marketplace
480 Hillsboro St.
Pittsboro, NC  27312
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Sponsor: Chatham Marketplace
Telephone: 919-542-2643
Contact Name: Craig Kolman
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Enjoy an easy-paced and stroller-friendly walk along the greenway. Suggested for ages 3 and younger with parent. Register online. Choose course #219870.

Cost: Free

Where:
Walnut Creek Wetland Park
950 Peterson St.
Raleigh, NC  27610
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Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-2760
Contact Name: Stacie Hagwood
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Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
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Website »

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Enjoy a free blueberry dessert and purchase fresh blueberries from local growers.

Cost: Free

Where:
Raleigh State Farmers Market
1201 Agriculture St.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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What do Historic Yates Mill County Park and the woodland faeries have in common? They both love nature! Take a short walk near the millpond to search for evidence of faeries (sightings are not...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Kindergarten students entering year-round school practice a lunch line, get moving at recess, hop on a school bus and explore circle time.   

Cost: Free

Where:
Marbles Kids Museum
201 E. Hargett St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Every year on June 21, we enjoy the most hours of sunlight during the whole year. Discover the science and cultural celebrations behind this special summer day. Make a pretty suncatcher to hang in...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about tummy time alternatives, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to...

Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
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Go nutty for nature as children satisfy some of their curiosity about the world around them and parents share in the joy of discovery. Ages 3-5 with parent. Register online.

Cost: $10/resident, $13/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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A wonderfully kid-paced hour featuring music, play and dancing with toddler stars singing on the mic at Cotton's gently amplified & participatory music show. Children delight in...

Cost: Free with admission

Where:
Pump It Up Raleigh
10700 World Trade Blvd, #112
Raleigh, NC  27617
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Sponsor: Pump it Up
Telephone: 919-828-3344
Contact Name: Owner/manager Kellie Paterson McHugh
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Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
View map »


Website »

More information

Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about carry positions, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to crawl,...

Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
Website »

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Join the folks at Open Table UMC in the Mordecai Neighborhood for free music and food trucks.

Cost: Free

Where:
Open Table United Methodist Church
824 N. Bloodworth Street
Raleigh, NC  27604
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Sponsor: Open Table UMC
Telephone: 919-561-2637
Contact Name: Andrea Chapman
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Come see the remake of Jeghetto’s hit puppet show co-written by Pierce Freelon of The Beast. This show was awarded two grants from the Henson Foundation. Be prepared for the major...

Cost: $15/person

Where:
The ArtsCenter
300-G East Main Street
Carrboro, NC  27510
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Sponsor: The ArtsCenter
Telephone: 191-992-92787
Contact Name: Patrick Phelps-Mckeown
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The summer heat is back, and so are the insects! Join us in the Finley Center exhibit hall to do some fun insect-themed crafts. We will make butterflies, dragonflies, ladybugs, and other insect...

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
View map »


Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Go nutty for nature as children satisfy some of their curiosity about the world around them and parents share in the joy of discovery. Ages 3-5 with parent. Register online.

Cost: $10/resident, $13/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Get the real scoop on turtles, how they “earn a living," and hear a story. Ages 5 and older. Register online.

Cost: $1/person

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Rd
Raleigh, NC  27614
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Telephone: 919-870-4330
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Transform a plastic storage box into a worm bin suitable for indoor use. Materials provided. Suggested for ages 6 and older. Register online by June 17. Choose course #220017.

Cost: $45/family for City of Raleigh residents; $60 for non-residents

Where:
Walnut Creek Wetland Park
950 Peterson St.
Raleigh, NC  27610
View map »


Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-2761
Contact Name: Stacie Hagwood
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After a shaded walk out to the creek entrance, take nets into the water to see some of these creek critters up close. Discuss some of the reasons it’s so important to keep these aquatic...

Cost: Free

Where:
Johnston Mill Nature Preserve
6001 Turkey Farm Rd.
Chapel Hill, NC  27514
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Sponsor: Triangle Land Conservancy
Telephone: 191-990-80054
Contact Name: Molly Richard
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More information

Little ones enjoy storytime.

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
5959 Triangle Town Blvd.
Cary, NC  27616
View map »


Website »

More information

Enjoy Little Golden Books' "Jurassic Park." This action-packed and age-appropriate title is great for dinosaur lovers, both new and old. Activities to follow. 

Cost: Free

Where:
Barnes & Noble
760 S.E. Maynard Rd.
Cary, NC  27511
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Enjoy food trucks, games and dog-related vendors.

Cost: Free

Where:
Dorothea Dix Park
2105 Umstead Dr.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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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), Age 6 & under free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Pilobolus delivers a one-hour family friendly performance as part of the American Dance Festival. Enjoy an all-ages party in the lobby featuring live music, face-painting,...

Cost: $17.25/person

Where:
Durham Performing Arts Center
123 Vivian Dr.
Durham, NC  27701
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Sponsor: American Dance Festival
Telephone: 919-684-6402
Contact Name: Sarah Tondu
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Explore the historic heart of downtown Raleigh on a walking tour of Fayetteville Street. Tours highlight the people, places, architecture and political movements that have shaped...

Cost: Adults (18+) $10; Youth (7-17) $4; Children (6 & under) Free.

Where:
City of Raleigh Museum
220 Fayetteville St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Enjoy all-things blueberry, food trucks and more at Vollmer Farms' annual Blueberry Festival. Vollmer Farms' Back-40 Country Playground will be open and features a giant...

Cost: $15/person. Free for ages 12 and younger

Where:
Vollmer Farm
677 NC Hwy 98 East
Bunn, NC  27508
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Sponsor: Vollmer Farm
Telephone: 919-496-3076
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Learn basic canoeing skills and a bit about the millpond's history, then head out to explore the pond's many features as seen only from the water. Canoes, paddles, and life jackets are provided,...

Cost: $10.00 per boat

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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As the Triangle continues to grow, it is increasingly important to tell the stories of North Carolina so that natives, newcomers and visitors alike feel at home in our great places. Celebrate North...

Cost: $15-$20

Where:
Historic Adams Farm
2601 Broad St.
Holly Springs, NC  27540
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