Don't Rely On College Sticker Prices

When looking at college costs, pay attention to the net price: the cost minus scholarships and grants.

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Everybody knows that college prices never stop rising.

What families often don't realize is that published college price tags are pretty much meaningless. Most students receive some type of price break, thanks to federal or state grants and/or discounts from the schools themselves.

Families must look beyond the sticker prices to determine what a particular school is going to cost them. What is far more important than sticker prices is a school's net price.

A net price refers to the cost after all scholarships and grants are deducted. For instance, if you got into a university with a $30,000 price tag, but received a $7,000 grant from the school, along with a $2,000 state grant, the net price would drop to $21,000.

[Learn more about scholarships.]

The U.S. Department of Education wants families to begin thinking about net prices when they shop for colleges. As part of that effort, the DOE launched a new website this month that contains the names of schools with the highest and lowest net prices among public schools, as well as nonprofit and for-profit private institutions. On the site, you can also find schools with the highest and lowest price tags, as well as schools that have been increasing their tuition the fastest.

How do schools end up on the list of the highest net prices—a list with which no college wants to be associated? These schools charge extremely high tuition, but provide little in terms of institutional grants to their students.

[Get tips on how to pay for college.]

When I looked at the 15 private nonprofit colleges with the highest net prices, art and music schools earned seven of the spots:

School name Net price
Art Center College of Design (CA) $39,672
New School (NY) $39,004
School of the Art Institute of Chicago $38,965
The Boston Conservatory $37,798
California Institute of the Arts $36,997
Manhattan School of Music (NY) $36,208
Rhode Island School of Design $35,991
Pratt Institute (NY) $35,506
Santa Clara University (CA) $35,245
Northwestern Health Sciences University (MN) $35,062
St. Joseph’s University (PA) $34,548
Simmons College (MA) $34,498
Drew University (NJ) $34,379
Beacon College (FL) $34,068
New York University $34,011


Among the state universities with the highest net prices, Pennsylvania universities stand out.

School name Net price
University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio $24,192
University of Guam $23,902
St. Mary’s College of Maryland $21,468
Rowan University (NJ) $19,344
Miami University—Oxford (OH) $19,305
Penn State University $19,056
Penn State—Altoona $18,878
Penn State—Erie—Behrend College $18,857
University of Pittsburgh $18,786
Penn State Berks $18,048
University of Cincinnati $17,997
University of Colorado at Boulder $17,929
University of Missouri—Kansas City $17,782
University of Maryland $17,626
Ohio University $17,497


You can find the other schools on these lists, along with other tables, by visiting the federal government's new College Affordability and Transparency Center.

[Read about using an aid calculator to get the real cost of college.]

Before you apply to any school, check out its net pricing. It's going to be much easier to do this soon because all colleges and universities, which participate in the federal financial aid program, must install a net price calculator on their websites by late October. These calculators should help make college pricing transparent for the first time and that's something to celebrate.