The real cost of college: don’t let a schools sticker price shock you into not applying

The real cost of college: don’t let a schools sticker price shock you into not applying

Tracey Randinelli

Deciding where to apply to college wasn’t a hard decision for Kelly Kroslowitz. The 20-year-old from Putnam Valley, New York, knew where she wanted to go: Saint Joseph’s University, a small private school in Philadelphia. “I liked the campus and the emphasis on community service. Plus, it has a great elementary education program,” she says. There was just one problem: the whopping price tag. Tuition and room and board added up to almost $27,000 per year.

A bill like that is enough to send anyone into sticker shock, but Kroslowitz didn’t panic. “I applied anyway,” she says. “And I was surprised to see that my most expensive college choice gave me the best financial aid package.”

What Kroslowirz realized is that a school’s “sticker price” can be misleading. The reality is that when it comes to college costs, the price you see listed is often more than what you pay.


Most people have an inflated perception of how much college costs. One reason, says Irvin Bodofsky, former chair of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, is that those “college-costs-will-break-your-bank” stories in the media tend to focus on the country’s highest-priced schools. “Those schools represent a very small percentage of where students are actually going to college,” Bodofsky says. In reality, 29 percent of students at four-year colleges actually pay less than $4,000 per year for tuition and fees–which translates into less than $450 per month, according to the College Board.

Also intimidating, says Patty Little, director of student retention at Malone College in Canton, Ohio, are media reports that show how college costs add up over time. “You see it as the whole four-year investment, and it’s overwhelming,” she says. Families need to remember that they are not going to be forced to lay out the cash for all four years at once.

Another myth is that college costs are rising exponentially each year. In fact, the College Board reports that last year students paid $231 to $1,114 more than the prior year in tuition and fees, depending on the type of institution. That’s hardly the “huge” increase that people often talk about.


About two-thirds of students don’t actually pay the full sticker price, according to Stephen Kramer, president and founder of College Coach, a college advisory service ( In fact, the College Board reports that a record $105 billion was available in financial aid in 2002-2003–and grant aid outpaced loan aid for the second consecutive year.

How much of that aid you receive is based on this basic formula:


THE COST OF ATTENDANCE is the actual price tag that you will see listed in college guides.

YOUR FAMILY CONTRIBUTION is the amount your family can afford to chip in based on financial data you provide on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)–sec page 25. Your family contribution should be what you really pay for college (not including student loans).

OUTSIDE AID is money from private scholarships that you win. NEED is the dollar amount you should receive in financial aid. Your college will create a financial aid package of loans, grants, and work-study to meet your need. (For a complete look at financial aid sources, see page 18.)

Because each student’s need is different, financial aid packages vary–and so does the amount that each student contributes toward college.

Kramer compares the phenomenon to airline pricing. It’s possible, he says, that the guy sitting in the next row in Psych 101 could be paying thousands of dollars less than you. “You can be getting the same classes,” he says, “but you’re paying a different amount.”

What all this means is that when it comes to determining a school’s price tag, the question is not “how much does the college cost,” but “how much will this school cost ME?”


To get a clear picture of college costs, Jack Joyce, director of guidance services at the College Board, advises families to divide expenses into several general categories:

TUITION AND FEES. Don’t forget to include items like deposits or application fees.

BOOKS AND SUPPLIES. Buying used books is a great strategy for saving money, but you can’t always count on being able to find cheaper tomes. Computers are another item to include in this category. “A lot of colleges require freshmen to have a laptop computer,” says Little. That can tack another few thousand dollars onto the budget as can supplies or equipment needed for specialized majors.

ROOM AND BOARD. Most colleges spell out die basic costs pretty dearly. In addition, you need to budget for special furniture or supplies you might need (e.g., refrigerator rental). And if you plan on daily three-hour long distance calls to your significant other, you’d better add a few hundred dollars to the phone bill budget.

TRANSPORTATION. This category is often underestimated by students, particularly those who attend schools far from home. “They may assume they’ll take one or two trips home during the semester,” says Bodofsky, “but if a student begins to be homesick or there are other problems, the costs may climb.” Commuter students aren’t exempt front these costs either–gas, tolls, and parking fees can add up.

PERSONAL EXPENSES. This covers laundry, toothpaste, soap, movies, latenight pizza, ski trips, parties, and everything else you’re going to spend to take care of and entertain yourself. And that’s not cheap.

MISCELLANEOUS. This accounts for those expenses not necessarily incurred by every student. Joining a fraternity or sorority? Plan on spending several hundred dollars for membership fees, T-shirts and events. Headed to Florida for spring break? Keep travel and housing costs in mind.


Once you have a clear picture of your costs and the amount of aid you’re receiving, you will then know if you and your family have enough to pay the difference, If you’re going to have great difficulty paying the balance, think about contacting the school’s financial aid office. Your college may not have taken into account financial hardships like sick family members or a parent who’s recently lost a job.

“For a school that is relying only on the FAFSA,” says the College Board’s Joyce, “it’s very important that the student take an extra step to explain his or her family situation. Show that the most recent tax return doesn’t reflect the current situation of the household.”

If you do approach a school’s financial aid office with a request for more money, be specific about your needs. “Don’t say, ‘I need lots more,'” explains Kramer. “Say ‘I need an additional $3,000 of aid to make this a reality,’ so that when the financial aid officer goes hack to the department, he or she has specific points to make.”

Bear in mind, though, that it’s not likely the financial aid office will throw another $10,000 your way just for the asking. Often, the funds simply aren’t available. “Resources are finite to a certain point,” reminds Bodofsky.


If you think you can swing the amount the school will cost you, great–sign the acceptance and start packing your bags. But don’t feel disappointed if you decide the final figure is just not something your family can handle. Just because you can’t afford one school doesn’t mean you can’t get a quality education somewhere less expensive. Bodofsky points out that many state schools are comparable in quality to the Ivy Leagues.

“You can get a quality education anywhere,” says Michael Hendricks, dean of admission at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania. “It’s what you put into it.”

What Will College Cost Me?

As you receive financial aid offers, you will want to easily compare

how much each school will actually cost you. This chart will help you

see if you’re receiving sufficient financial aid to meet your need.

Note: To fill In your EFC in number 7, you will need your Student Aid

Report (See the FAFSA article on page 25.)



1. Tuition/fees

2. Books/supplies

3. Room/board

4. Transportation

5. Personal/miscellaneous expenses


7. Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

8. TOTAL NEED (Subtract 7 from 6)


9. Scholarships

10. Grants

11. Work-Study

12. Tax Credits

13. Students Loans


(Add 9-13; should equal NEED)


AID (Subtract 14 to 6)

Tracey Randinelli lowered her costs at the

University of Delaware by earning AP credits

and graduating in three years instead of four.

COPYRIGHT 2003 EM Guild, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group