Don’t Be Turned Off By a College’s Sticker Price

Research the costs of private colleges these days, and you’ll end up with a bad case of sticker shock. In fact, the average private college sticker price is now around $32,000 a year, according to the College Board. Meanwhile, the sticker price at more selective private colleges is often $50,000 and up, with many elite institutions (like the Ivy League) are nearing the $70,000 per year mark.

But here’s the thing. The majority of students don’t pay sticker price, so before you cross a private college off your list as too expensive, it’s worth taking the time to understand what it will really cost your student to attend. We caught up with Lindajean Heller Western, vice president for enrollment at Ohio’s Hiram College, to find out more.

Why You Should Look Past College Sticker Price

1. Understand that Most Students Don’t Pay Sticker Price.

The average family actually pays about half the $32,000 sticker price at private colleges: $14,890, according to the College Board. Heller Western recommends that families start their research on college costs at the U.S. Department of Education’s, where you can browse data on what the average student pays, graduation rates, earnings after graduation, and lots more for thousands of institutions. “It has data for every accredited college and university,” says Western, “so you can make a real apples-to-apples comparison between schools you’re interested in.”

2. Use Net Price Calculators to Get an Estimate of Your Family’s Costs.

The costs published on are just averages. Some students pay less; some pay more. To get a better understanding of your actual college costs (called your net price), it can be helpful to fill out a college’s Net Price Calculator (NPC). Western notes that every college and university is now required by the Department of Education to have an NPC on its website. The NPC asks questions about your family’s financial situation (you’ll need your tax returns and some other financial documents) and provides an estimate of your family’s net price for that institution. For your family, that college with a $70,000 a year college sticker price may cost much (much) less.

3. Research Graduation Rates.

An important consideration, when it comes to costs: How long will you be in school? “Look at the data,” Western advises. “Can you graduate from that particular school in four years with that degree? For example, while a state school might be lower in terms of annual costs, if you have to go to that school for a fifth year, then a school with a higher annual cost may actually be less expensive overall because you will graduate in four years.”

4. Apply to Schools that Offer Merit Scholarships.

Merit scholarships (also called merit aid) is money awarded to students based on academics and other accomplishments. That’s different than financial, or need-based, aid, which is awarded based on your family’s financial circumstances. Families with higher incomes will want to find schools that are generous with merit aid (not all schools offer it), as they will not be eligible for much, if any, need-based aid. (Lower income students are eligible for both need-based and merit aid). Note that net price calculators tend not to include merit awards, so Western recommends students do research on a college’s website. “We publish the different merit scholarships we offer at Hiram on our website,” she says. “We like that to be easily accessible for our prospective students.”

5. Explore Other Ways to Cut Costs.

If the cost of college still looks prohibitive for your family (perhaps your student isn’t eligible for enough financial aid), don’t lose hope, says Western. “There are a lot of options out there.” That includes starting a degree at a community college, then transferring to a four-year institution. At Hiram, for example, students who start their college degree at Lakeland Community College or Cuyahoga Community College and maintain a certain grade point average will be automatically accepted to Hiram as juniors. “So that’s two years of college at community college tuition,” notes Western. Students going this route should make sure to work closely with an advisor to pick classes that will easily transfer.

Another option: dual enrollment programs, which allow high-school students to enroll for free in college classes while still in high school. “Students can complete college courses in high school that can transfer to the college they are going to,” explains Western. “That is also a wonderful way to save money.”