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Sticker Shock: Why the Price Isn’t What You'll Actually Pay for College

Alyson Campbell January 26, 2024

Sticker Shock

It is pretty staggering as a parent of a high school student to visit a college website and see that the cost of attendance for ONE YEAR is more than what it likely cost for 4 years of college for us. 

For example:

- The cost of attendance at New York University for 2023-24? $90,222

- The cost of attendance for University of Chicago for 2023-24?  $89,040

- The cost of attendance for Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio for 2023-24? $83,740 

For many families, the cost of attendance (tuition + room & board + fees + anticipated expenditures) is one of the most important factors when creating a college list or deciding where to ultimately attend. According to a recent Niche survey (Senior Enrollment Survey: The New Normal) of more than 21,000 college-bound students, 81% said the sticker shock of high tuition and fees dissuaded them from even applying to specific colleges and universities. 

The truth is - RARELY does anyone pay the full sticker price for their college education. Many schools have generous endowments to offset student cost, or they offer merit scholarships for top students. Many colleges offer robust financial aid packages that make it significantly more affordable to attend their institutions.

Let’s look back at our three examples:

New York University
  • NYU meets 100% of a family’s demonstrated financial need.
  • NYU also offers FREE tuition to undergraduate students whose family income is less than $100,000. 
  • In 2021, 53% received financial aid - 44% of which was institutional grant aid.

University of Chicago

  • University of Chicago meets 100% of demonstrated financial need. 
  • They also offer free tuition to families who make less than $125,000/year with traditional assets, and also offer free tuition/room and board/fees to students whose families make less than $60,000.
  • Incoming freshmen who demonstrated NO financial need in 2021 were awarded on average $14,102.
Kenyon College: 
  • Kenyon College meets 100% of demonstrated financial need for all four years. 
  • 65% of students receive some form of financial aid, and 43% receive need based financial aid. 

So, before ruling out a school based solely on the sticker price, we encourage you to take into account the pieces below, and consider building your list using a combination of these with the level of affordability:

  • Major/program
  • Size
  • Location
  • Fit/feel

Depending on the opportunity for merit scholarships, grants, institutional aid, or other funding resources, you can make a determination or estimate on cost and whether it's a viable option for your family. If a school with a high sticker price ends up being the “match”, connect with someone in the institution’s admission or financial aid office to find ways to make the tuition manageable. Here are some potential considerations to make this possible:

  • Can you improve your GPA or test score to recalculate your merit aid?
  • Can you come back to campus for a scholarship day?
  • Can you apply for any internal grants or scholarships?
  • Do they have any suggestions to help lower the cost?

You may be surprised! At the end of the day, your high-priced school may be more affordable than you think! In some instances, an in-state public university with a lower sticker price can actually end up being more expensive than a private, liberal arts college. There are many factors at play like your FAFSA Student Aid Index (SAI) determination, special circumstances, and all of the amazing attributes you bring to the table. So, before being scared off by a large price tag, do your dollar diligence!

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