NPR logo What You'll Actually Pay At 1,550 Colleges

What You'll Actually Pay At 1,550 Colleges

There are two prices for every college degree: the sticker price and the net price. The sticker price is the number that most schools list in their brochures. The net price is that very same number less scholarships, grants and financial aid. It is what you actually pay. For an incoming freshman, this net price is the number that matters the most, and until recently, it was also the number that we knew the least about.

This month, the Department of Education released the College Scorecard, a tool commissioned by the Obama administration to help students make better choices about college, and about spending money on college. The creators of the scorecard decided to exclude the sticker price altogether. Instead, they focused exclusively on the average net price for all students. But there's one problem with this approach. It leaves out a key variable administrators use in determining how much college will cost a student: family income.

Search below to see how much each school actually costs:

There are significant differences between what students from low income and high income families pay, particularly at elite private universities. The school where that difference is the greatest is Amherst College. The cost of attendance (including tuition, fees, books, etc.) for students in the lowest income tier (with a family income of less than $30,000) is only $2,000, but for students in the highest tier (over $110,000), the cost is $40,000. Amherst is among the top 50 schools that emphasize upward mobility, and this pricing structure reflects that.

The cost curve for public universities is flatter. Public colleges don't offer steep discounts for low-income families. What this means is that public colleges can actually be the more expensive option, particularly if a student's family is low-income. But overall, the typical public school is still cheaper than the typical private school.

At private universities, almost no one pays full price. Even at the high end of the income spectrum, the net price is significantly less than the sticker price. It's the opposite at public schools. In public schools, net price often meets sticker price at the high end.

"There are still lots of unanswered questions," said Andrew Kelly, an education policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Kelly says that students shouldn't immediately jump to the conclusion that the numbers in the graph are exactly what they're going to pay when they get their admissions letter — the price will vary depending on how desirable the student is to the school, among other factors. Kelly says the reason is selection bias: the data only include the net price for students who've already enrolled, not for students who were admitted but chose not to attend. So the numbers might be skewed because the students enrolled might be more likely to have been targeted specifically by the university and therefore were offered the best financial packages.

Caveats aside, having an idea of the actual cost of college is really important for both low- and high-income students. "The fact that sticker shock is turning students away — that's a mistake," Kelly says. "If your family is poor, then aim as high as you academically can and see what the schools offer." On the other hand, he thinks students from wealthier families should broaden their search past prestige and look at what public schools have to offer. "Look at the completion rate, labor market outcomes — all those things. That's what we need in higher-ed, students that are more value conscious."