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College Sticker Price vs. Net Price (What's the Difference?)

A student looks at her laptop to compare college costs


Whether you're just beginning to build your college list or if you're narrowing down your choices, one of the top factors in your decision is cost.

Most of us know college can be expensive, but you might not know that college doesn't cost the same amount of money for every student. Colleges understand that each student's financial situation is different, and they come from diverse backgrounds. That's where the difference between net price and sticker price comes in.

What is a Sticker Price for Higher Education

Every good college knows that it doesn't matter if a student comes from a wealthy family; it matters if they are academically and personally prepared to succeed on campus. Colleges also know that students who have worked hard to rise to the top of their class, who have had to overcome obstacles, who have participated in an after-school program, or who have mastered a sport deserve to have their accomplishments recognized.

That's why colleges offer financial aid reports to every accepted student. This report lists two prices: a sticker price and a net price.

The total yearly cost of a college education is called its sticker price. This price includes the total cost of yearly tuition, books, room/board, and any fees the campus might charge, like a parking permit or library card fee. The financial aid report starts with this sticker price and then subtracts a student's financial need, scholarships, grants, and other aid forms from the total, leaving the net price. 

What does net price mean? That's what you will actually pay to attend the school after your financial aid package is deducted. 

Navigating Sticker Price vs. Net Price When Choosing a College

As you prepare to apply to college, it's important to remember that the prices you might see listed for the colleges or universities you want to attend are not the price you will pay. Unfortunately, many students get discouraged by the high sticker prices at competitive private colleges and decide they won't even try applying there. This is a massive mistake because sometimes, the colleges with the highest sticker prices offer the lowest net prices to students who don't have much money.

This is why the net price is a more important number to consider than the sticker price. 

Finding the Net Price for a College with a Net Price Calculator

Another tool to help students determine net price is a net price calculator. This calculator estimates what a college will cost you based on your family income, scholarship information, and other factors. Net price calculators are free to use.

How Accurate are Net Price Calculators?

The quality of net price calculators vary significantly. The least reliable ones are built using the federal calculator template, which schools can use for free.

Roughly half of the schools use net price calculators that depend upon the federal template. Other colleges and universities created their own calculators in-house or hired outside vendors to build them.

The federally-inspired calculators do not ask about:

  • Parent(s) assets
  • Student's assets
  • Actual parent(s) income figures
  • Actual child income figures

These simple calculators only ask families to select an income range that can make the resulting net price unreliable. 

In contrast, the most accurate net price calculators require sharing specific figures on tax returns. In addition, they will ask about relevant assets, including school accounts, taxable accounts, custodial accounts, and savings/checking accounts. Generally, the more questions a net price calculator asks, the more accurate the results are.

Quickly See Net Price Estimates with Appily

Did you know Cappex's college profiles include a college's net price based on your family's income bracket? Once you've completed your Appily profile, you'll be able to see the average net price for students like you for hundreds of colleges that you may be interested in.

Click the button below to get an accurate picture of how much college will cost.

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