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Figuring Out The Real Price Of College

A Stanford University student walks through the campus in Palo Alto, Calif.
Paul Sakuma/AP

At private colleges, the sticker price for tuition, room and board has gone through the roof over the past decade. You know this.

But there's a huge gap between the sticker price — the price that colleges list on their websites and brochures — and the average price students actually pay after accounting for scholarships and grants.

For the current school year, the average sticker price for tuition and fees at a private, nonprofit college is $28,500, according to a report from the College Board.

The average price students actually pay is less than half that — $12,970. That's almost identical to the $12,650 that students paid, on average, in the 2001-2002 school year. (These are inflation-adjusted dollars.)

Of course, this is just the average. What students actually pay varies wildly. If you happen to be trying to figure out where to go to college, what you really want to know is what the price at a given college is likely to be for you.

There's a tool that can help you figure this out. It's called the "net price calculator." And all colleges are now required to post a net price calculator on their website.

The calculator asks a series of questions about the student and the family's financial situation. At the end, you get a page that shows the school's sticker price, the scholarships and grants you'd be likely to qualify for, and the price you'd be likely to pay.

One big caveat: This is not a binding offer of financial aid or scholarships. It's just supposed to be a rough estimate.

But a rough estimate can be a helpful way to focus less on sticker price and more on a price that's closer to what you'd actually pay.

For More: See our story, How Colleges Fight For Top Students.

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