When we discuss college costs, we need to understand what “cost” actually means.
Officially, colleges list a cost of attendance, what I call sticker price, which includes tuition and fees, room and board, transportation, books and supplies, and personal expenses. Families don’t pay the sticker price, though, so don’t get a case of sticker shock when you start looking at colleges.
What you actually pay is called net price. Net price is the cost of attendance (sticker price) minus the grants and/or scholarships your child obtains. Since in most cases the cost will still be quite high, families may also choose to take out loans and approximate what their child could earn with a job on campus, and subtract those amounts from the sticker price.
Every college in the country now has a net price calculator on its website. These calculators allow families to determine their estimated net price at each school, even before the student formally applies for admission. You and your son can start using net price calculators to see about how much you should expect to pay for each school that he’s interested in.
Finding affordable colleges is really about finding colleges with net prices that match what you can afford to pay on a yearly basis—a concept that I call financial fit.