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Last Updated On: May 17th, 2020

If you look at the sticker price of most top universities, college costs a fortune. But if you are smart about applying for need and merit-based financial aid, it might not be that bad…or at least it might only cost a small fortune.

In our last blog post, we discussed the FAFSA and CSS Profile. Completing these forms is vital to receiving maximum financial aid. It’s so important because, for families with need, there could be a huge difference between the “net price” and “sticker price” of college. Sticker price is the listed total cost of tuition, room and board, books, and living expenses, the price you might find on the school’s website and handbook. In many cases, it’s beyond shocking. My alma mater, Claremont McKenna, lists a sticker price of $69,385 per year! The sticker price of UC Berkeley is $37,284, considerably less but still shocking.

These price tags, however, may not be the actual price of college. The “net price,” the price a family can expect to actually pay at a given school, is what’s really important. Unlike the sticker price, net price takes into consideration financial need and all the different types of aid a student receives, provided the family files all the forms on time. And, while the sticker price of college has increased at astronomical levels over the past several years, the net price has increased much more slowly.

When factoring in cost to the college equation, it’s important to consider net price. The College Board offers an excellent tool called the net price calculator. This is not an official application for financial aid, but with a few pieces of information you can get a reasonable estimate of what a specific college might actually cost your family. Schools that aren’t included in this often have their own tools on their websites, like this one for UC Berkeley.

I input some sample annual salaries and assets into the net price calculator for the two schools I mentioned. These are very rough calculations, and they don’t include merit scholarships, loans, or work study:

Family Situation

Esti Net Cost of UC Berkeley*

Esti Net Cost of Claremont McKenna

$50,000 salary, $10,000 assets,

1 child in college, doesn’t own home



$100,000 salary, $50,000 assets,

1 child in college, doesn’t own home



$250,000 salary, $100,000 assets, $500,000 of home equity

1 child in college



$250,000 salary, $100,000 assets, $500,000 of home equity

2 children in college



*In-state tuition

As you can see, families with middle-class incomes of $50,000 and even $100,000 can qualify for significant amounts of financial aid at both schools. While a family with an income of $250,000 doesn’t qualify for any grants with just one child in college, if that same family has two children in college at the same time, they would qualify for over $14,000 in grants at CMC! Interestingly, the more expensive school turns out to have a lower net cost for the family with a $50,000 income.
The lessons of all this? Do your research, and look beyond the sticker price when you’re considering schools. Also, even relatively well-off families can benefit from filling out a financial aid application, especially if more than one child is in school at the same time. If you’re considering an expensive school, focus on making your application as strong as possible and go ahead and apply!*In-state tuition

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