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What does college actually cost?

December 08, 2018

So you’ve started your college applications. For those looking at college and financial aid applications for the first time, welcome to a new world of vocabulary words, beyond the ones tested on the SAT/ACT. These include phrases like “net tuition”, “list price”, “total cost of attendance, and “tuition discount” .

The difference between net and list price is relatively straightforward – list prices are the published tuition and fee rates to attend an institution, the “full sticker price”. Net price is the amount a student or family pays after accounting for student financial aid (note: some institutions include loans as a form of financial aid; but, because loans still need to be paid back, we define net price as the price students and families pay after accounting for only grant aid).

The total cost of attendance is an estimated total student budget for attending college; it includes room, board, and other estimates (e.g. for textbooks, health care fees, etc) that can vary by whether a student lives on- or off-campus and is financially independent from or dependent on their parents.

The difference between net price and list price has grown, with the price students pay after grant aid increasing more slowly over time than the list price. After taking into account student grant aid, such as state grants and the federal Pell grant, the net price students pay has increased 23% over the last ten years for students attending a public four-year institutions. The average net price to attend a private, non-profit four-year has increased 5%.

Published and Net Prices in 2018 Dollars by Sector

Full-Time Undergraduate Students, 1997-98 to 2018-19

Public Four-Year In-State









18-19 (est)

Published Tuition, Fees, Room, & Board










Net Tuition, Fees, Room, & Board










Total Grant Aid and Tax Benefits










Private Nonprofit Four-Year


Published Tuition, Fees, Room, & Board










Net Tuition, Fees, Room, & Board










Total Grant Aid and Tax Benefits










SOURCE: The College Board, Trends in Student Aid 2018, Table 7; 10 Year Change calculated by Edmit. This table was prepared in October 2018 by the College Board and edited for brevity by Edmit.

For the upcoming academic year, the College Board’s annual publication, Trends in College Pricing, estimates that full-time students attending a public four-year institution are estimated to pay $14,880 in tuition, fees, room and board charges on average. Public four-year institutions’ list price is estimated to be $21,370 for full-time attendance.

Students attending a private non-profit four-year institution will face an estimated $14,610 in net tuition; including room and board fees, the net cost of attendance is estimated to be $27,290 compared to a $48,510 list price.

Of course, these averages vary widely by family income. In 2015-16 (the last year price-by-income data is available), federal financial aid recipients from families with less than $35,000 in income paid no tuition on average at both public two- and four- year institutions. At private, non-profit four-year institutions, students from these families paid $4,800 in tuition. Students from families earning more than $120,000, on the other hand, faced average net tuition rates ranging from $2,060 at public two-year institutions to $23,460 at private, non-profit four-year institutions.

Net Price Paid at Public 4-Year Institutions, by Income Level (2015-2016)


Net Price Paid at Private 4-Year Institutions, by Income Level (2015-2016)

NOTES: Total grant aid excludes veterans benefits. Includes full-time undergraduate students who were U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Percentages may not sum to 100 because of rounding.

SOURCE: Reproduction of Figures 11 & 12 from The College Board, Trends in Student Aid 2018

So, what do all these new vocabulary words mean for your college application and decision-making?

  1. Use sources like the net price calculators on each college website and the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard to better estimate what the net price might be for attending that particular college. For net price calculators, be sure to double check that the calculator has been updated with the most current year’s tuition and fee rates. Sometimes these can be misleading.

  2. Have a multi-year plan for financing your college education. Anticipate that next year, the tuition rate you’re seeing this year may be slightly higher. If your goal is a bachelor’s degree, but the options out there are daunting, consider a lower cost option – like a community college – for general, foundational courses that can be transferred to a four-year institution. Just be sure to choose a lower cost option that has a clear degree pathway, adequate student supports for your needs and that your target four-year institution accepts transfers (and awards transfer credit).

  3. Read the fine print. Your institution may participate in the federal student loan program, even though they initially may only offer $0 in federal loans. Private loans often carry higher interest rates than federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans, so it’s best to compare all the options, beyond what may be said in larger font on your financial aid award letter.

Monnica is a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research explores the effect of higher education policies on student access and success.