Sticker vs. Net Price: Finding Colleges You Can Afford

Looking at colleges and seeing eye-popping tuition fees? It is important to understand that many students pay less than the advertised price.

Colleges offer scholarships and other kinds of aid to help offset the cost of tuition, but some are more generous than others. That’s why you need to do your research.


College Sticker Price vs. Net Price: What’s the Difference?

A college’s sticker price simply means the full cost of attending that school for a year. The sticker price includes the cost of tuition, room and board, and even books. Add up all the annual fees. That is the sticker price.

The sticker price is listed as the cost of attendance on college websites.

Don’t get scared by the sticker price. Many students do not pay this full amount. If a college wants to admit you, they try to bring the price down so you and your family can afford it. Colleges do this by awarding needs-based scholarships and merit aid for students they want to enroll. This is money you don’t have to pay back.

This new (and hopefully much reduced) cost of attendance is called your net price.


Net Price = Sticker Price – Free Money

This price is special for you. For each individual student, free money for college may include grants, scholarships, other gift aid, and any tuition wavers you qualify for. A friend applying to the same college might get a very different offer.

Why? Colleges consider your family’s financial situation and how much they would like you to attend. If a college — public or private — really wants you to choose them, they may offer you a generous amount in scholarships and possibly merit aid.


How Do You Figure Out Your Net Price Before You Apply?

Every college is required to have a net price calculator on its website. A net price calculator asks questions that are similar to those you will see on the FAFSA. It will ask for information about you (the student) and about your household (parents and siblings). And it will ask about your family finances.

There may also be questions about your grade point average (known as a GPA) as well as any SAT or ACT scores you may have. If a net price calculator asks for academic information, it means that that school is also factoring in merit scholarships that you may be eligible to receive.

After you answer the questions, the school’s calculator will give you an estimated net price. It’s only an estimate. The college isn’t promising to honor that figure. You won’t know your actual net price until the college decides to admit you.

Net price calculators aren’t perfect but they can help you identify colleges that are likely to offer you generous aid. And that’s worth knowing.


Read: Five Tips for Using a College Net Price Calculator



Need a quick way to compare college costs? Start with ‘College Scorecard’

It can be time consuming to complete a net price calculator for each school you’re looking at, especially if you’re early on in your college search. You may want to start off by using the federal government’s College Scorecard to take a quick glance at college costs.

This site is trustworthy and has lots of information about schools you may be interested in.

To compare possible net prices, look for a couple of things:

  • The College Scorecard offers a figure called the Average Annual Cost for each school, which gives a quick sense of the average amount that students pay after factoring in scholarships.
  • The College Scorecard also has a comparison tool that lets you compare schools’ average costs, acceptance rate, graduation and retention rates, median earnings after graduation, and typical amount of debt students carry after graduation.