Be savvy – don’t be fooled by a college’s sticker price

Photo by Robert Kinlaw,

No one will question that the price of a college education seems out of control. Sticker prices have risen faster than inflation, and according to US News and World Report, over the last 20 years, “the average tuition and fees at private National Universities have jumped 157 percent while out-of-state tuition and fees at public National Universities have risen 194 percent.”

The logical response to these price hikes has been to choose to stay in-state. However, the same research has shown that in-state tuition and fees at public universities have grown the most, increasing a shocking 237 percent.

According to the US News and World Report research, tuition and fees for public in-state schools more than tripled from $3,168 in 1997 to $10,691 in 2017. Similarly, tuition and fees at out-of-state public schools almost tripled from $8,840 in 1997 to $26,010 in 2017.

Costs at private schools started much higher at $16,233 in 1997 and climbed to $32,107 in 2010 and then jumped to $41,727 in 2017, the research showed.

After recovering from sticker-shock, there is some good news: 80 percent of students attending college receive a discount through a combination of federal, state and institutional grants; private scholarships; federal student loans; and guaranteed student employment (work-study).

It’s slightly counter-intuitive to wrap your head around the fact that sometimes the most expensive schools on paper can be the most affordable. The best way to find out just how generous a school might be is to explore its “net price calculator,” which is on the website for every college.

I wish I could tell you that the net price calculator is spot-on, and you’ll know exactly how much the college will provide in aid, but unfortunately that isn’t true. You will receive a fairly likely indicator of the amount of merit aid and how much need-based aid your student is likely to receive, but the colleges aren’t bound to provide those discounts.

It is most helpful to complete the net price calculator on multiple college websites so you can get a better approximation of financial expectations.

The other “trick” I recommend is to adjust the test scores and the reported GPA on the net price calculator to see how those changes impact the amount of aid that can be received.

I worked with a family a year ago who plugged in their current stats and received a dollar figure that was more than they felt they could afford. Then they bumped up the SAT test scores from the low 600’s on the Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section to the mid-to-high 600’s and were generously rewarded with more than $20,000 more in grants. There is no question that at many colleges, higher test scores will mean more money.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions to: