How to Calculate Net Price of College

Ana-Marcela Lopez / Colleges of Distinction »

In 2021, the average cost of tuition and fees at a public, in-state college was $10,338. Out-of-state students paid closer to $22,698, and those in private school paid $38,185. These averages can give you an idea of how much you might pay wherever you enroll, but understanding exactly how much you will pay is trickier than you might expect. 

While many colleges and universities have the cost of their tuition posted on their site, it’s important to keep in mind that that isn’t necessarily the amount you will actually pay. This, according to Jennifer Gallagher, Director of Student Financial Aid at Washington College, is known as the “sticker price.” To find that out, you need to understand net price

“There are many different components that make up the cost of attendance such as tuition and fees, room, meals, books, and personal or miscellaneous expenses,” says Gallagher. The net price of college is the final amount you will pay in a year after factoring in these additional fees as well as the financial aid you receive. Because the price of college varies so widely for each student, you’ll have to do some digging to determine your personal net price of college.

If you want to know exactly where your college money is going, keep reading. Our guide will walk you through all you need to know.

What Do Colleges Advertise?

In most cases, the tuition rates you’ll find on a college’s website don’t tell the whole story. All they show is their tuition, or the cost for the actual courses you’ll take, and nothing else. Additional fees may be included, so you should also look for information on other expenses you’ll take on as an undergrad.

What tuition will represent is the cost of each course and/or the total amount of a traditional year of courses. If you’re planning to enroll as a full-time student, you will probably find a single price that equals the total amount of the courses/credits required to be considered full time.

Some tuition pages will list the cost of individual courses. Just be careful to note whether the listed numbers reflect the price per course or per credit hour.

The per-credit-hour (or per-credit) rate is not the total cost of the course. Most academic classes count as 3-4 credit hours (depending on the institution) per semester. For instance, if a semester course counts as three credit hours, you will multiply the credit hour price by three. 

Room & Board Fees

Should you live on campus as a freshman? We believe the benefits of connecting with other freshmen can outweigh the costs. That said, you should be wary of the fact that living on campus and having a meal plan can have some significant upfront costs. 

On the higher end, at a school like Harvard, room and board costs can climb close to $20,000. Large state schools don’t fare much better. It’s crucial that you research the room and board fees at your prospective schools. 

If you can’t find information on a school’s website, reach out to its financial aid office. 

Institutional Fees and Extras

In addition to tuition, most colleges charge some kind of institutional fees. These include fees for processing applications, which can range from $20-$100 alone. Other fees cover gym memberships, parking passes, books, and healthcare coverage. 

For reference, the 2021 fees to attend and live on campus at the University of Georgia total more than $13,700. If you do the math, that’s an added $54,800 for a four-year degree. 

You want to know what you’re committing to financially at each school on your list. Consider the extra charges that come with attending the school. Here, too, is where you can reach out the financial aid office to get a clearer idea of what you’re on the hook for each semester.

Living Expenses and Transportation

Finally, you’ll want to think through any living expenses and transportation costs you’ll need on a day-to-day basis. Some meal plans may only cover one or two meals per day, meaning you’ll need to budget for groceries. Dorms often have pay-per-use laundry units, and you’ll want to factor in any outings you might take with your friends. Ms. Gallagher from Washington College suggests you consider future opportunities that await you in college, including “things like technology and electronics, study abroad, dues for Greek life and transportation back and forth to campus, especially if your trips require a flight.”

If you’re bringing your own car, add gas, insurance, and maintenance costs. Even public transportation has fees associated with it. Do some research to learn about different commuter options (your college may even have access to discounted passes!).

How to Calculate the Net Price of College

Now that you know what costs can be included in your total, it’s time to calculate the net price of college. Start by determining the per-credit-hour rate. Multiply that number by the number of credit hours per course (most often three).

For example, let’s say that a college offers tuition at $400 per credit hour. Most of the courses you’ll be taking will be three credit hours each, so tuition comes out to a rate of $1,200 per course.

On average, most full-time students take a total of 12 credit hours (or four courses) per semester. To use our example, that would come out to $4,800 for a semester of classes, and $9,600 for the academic year (two semesters, 24 credit hours). Once you know that, add in any information you have on the associated fees. A school charging an extra $3,000 a semester for tech, library, and heath fees would bring your cost to $7,800 a semester, and $15,600 for a full year.

Finally, factor in the cost of room and board to come to your final cost of attendance.

But that’s not where it ends! The next step is to cut down the total cost by subtracting out the amount of any expected family contributions, scholarships, grants, or loans you will have. After that, you’ll have your net price. 

Using a Calculator

If all of those equations sound like a lot to wrap your head around, don’t worry! A lot of schools have Net Price Calculators on their websites to help do the work for you. Zully Rodriguez, Associate Director of Student Financial Aid at the University of Hartford, explains that these calculators “[provide] an approximation of what a new student can expect to pay… A net price calculator may ask you about your family’s finances as well as academic related questions (including GPA, class rank, ACT scores, and SAT scores if available).

“A net price calculator is not an official application for financial aid. The results provided are an estimate and do not guarantee the actual aid you will be eligible to receive… The estimate is subject to the accuracy of the information you provide, may change if financial or family characteristics change, and does not incorporate any special circumstances, which are reviewed after you officially apply for aid.” 

Applying for Financial Aid

If your expected family contribution (EFC) is low, you’ll want to apply for financial aid. Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form is your first step. This will show you how much money you’re eligible to take out in loans or grants. 

FAFSA takes into account which schools, in or out-of-state, you’re hoping to attend. If accepted, FAFSA contacts the schools with your information. Then, they put together an individualized aid package for you.

Scholarships vs. Grants

If you want to limit the number of loans you’re taking out, apply for scholarships and grants. Scholarships are most often merit-based, so your GPA in high school or your involvement in organizations like the National Honor Society could help pay for college.

Individual organizations, sponsors, and college alumni can all offer scholarships. Your school or program of study may have scholarships available, too. All scholarships require some kind of application, and many require essays.

Do your research ahead of time, and be diligent about applying to scholarships. Doing so can save you thousands of dollars in loans by the end of your degree.

Grants, on the other hand, are need-based funding from the government. You’ll find out if you’ve won any grants when you fill out your FAFSA form. For those with minimal EFC, Federal Pell Grants are a great resource.

Paying for College

The net price for college is more complex than many school websites make it seem. On top of tuition, you need to factor in room and board, meal plans, fees, and the general cost of living. Once you have your total price, subtract any financial aid, student loans, grants, or scholarships you receive.

Putting away an accurate amount of money for college can be challenging. So use this guide as a predictor for determining what you’ll need.

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