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Answers to Your College Questions

My son started looking into colleges, and the price of many of them is outrageous. Do we actually have to pay $55,000 per year for him to go to college?

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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.


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Frank Palmasani is a Chicago area high school guidance counselor and former college director of admissions, and creator of Financial Fit. In 1985, Palmasani began delivering seminars on the college financial aid and planning process, and estimates that he has reached more than 200,000 people through his talks. He is a member of NACAC, IACAC, and the College Board. Palmasani has been featured in the Boston Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Yahoo! Finance, WGN-TV, WTTW-TV, CBS’s Monsters and Money in the Morning, and is the author of the forthcoming book Right College, Right Price (Sourcebooks, January 2013).

Palmasani is the founder of Financial Fit, which you can find in the College Countdown bookstore.