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Sticker price

Don't let the "sticker price" fool you – Secrets to paying for college.

You know the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover?” This timeless adage holds true for college and university tuition costs, too: Never judge a school by its “sticker price.” 

“Sticker price” includes the annual cost of attendance advertised by any particular school. These numbers are usually listed somewhere within a section titled “Tuition & Fees.”

What most colleges and universities don’t mention in those tuition and fees is that students rarely pay the actual “sticker price.” Rather, most students pay what’s known as a school’s “net price,” which factors in total costs after tuition reductions, including scholarships and federal financial aid.

Did you know the typical undergraduate student enrolled full-time at a private, nonprofit four-year institution receives enough financial aid to cover up to 60% of that school’s “sticker price?”

We call that the “Before and After” effect of college tuition.

Sticker price – scholarships and financial aid = net price

Nearly six in ten families will rule out a college or university simply based on its “sticker price,” potentially missing out on a school that’s a perfect fit for their student. 

That’s why it’s so important to do your research first. Investigate scholarship and financial aid opportunities before you cross a school off the list. By law, every college and university is required to make a net price calculator accessible on its website. Take advantage of this resource! But don’t just stop there. Make an appointment with an Admissions representative, and be prepared to ask questions.  

Consider asking questions like

  • On average, how much do students actually spend to attend your school?
  • What types of scholarships do you have available to help offset your tuition and fees? For which scholarships would my student qualify?
  • Do you offer federal financial aid? If so, what are your priority deadlines for filling out the Federal Application for Student Aid (also known as the FAFSA)?

These are just a few starting points to consider if you’re sincerely interested in any particular school.

You can practice your investigative skills by testing out Columbia College’s net price calculator. See how our lower-than-the-national-average “sticker price” compares to our “net price,” after the calculator estimates possible merit and need-based scholarships with financial aid. Usually these questions are arranged similarly to questions from the FAFSA in order provide a more accurate picture for the user.

We realize there are so many factors attributed to finding the right school with the perfect fit. But remember — when narrowing down that college search list, don’t let “sticker price” get in the way. Always learn all about your tuition assistance options before turning your search elsewhere.


  • Six in ten families rule out some colleges because of sticker price, yet many do not know that the “net price” is typically far lower. Stanford’s sticker price for tuition, living expenses and books is $55,918, while Cal State Long Beach’s is $20,675. But for some low-income students, aid discounts those prices to $4,496 and $3,593 respectively. (source)
  • About two-thirds of undergraduate students enrolled full time receive grants that reduce the actual price of college (NCES, National Postsecondary Student Aid Study [NPSAS], 2012).
  • The average full-time undergraduate enrolled in a private nonprofit four-year college receives enough grant aid to cover about 60% of tuition and fees (source)


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