How Much You Pay For College Depends Almost Entirely On This

City SlickersIn the movie City Slickers, Curly, the wise, old cowboy tells Mitch Robins played by Billy Crystal that the secret to life comes down to “just one thing”. Well, for most families the secret to paying less for college comes down to just one thing as well.

Scholarships and grants, how you save for college, the classes you take before going to college — all these things are important, but to paraphrase Curley “they don’t mean squat”, if you don’t get this one thing right.

Do you know what that one thing is?

Based on my experience working with hundreds of families over the past two decades, I believe that how much you pay for college almost always comes down to this one thing: the school your student chooses to attend.

I know that sounds obvious. You would think that with a price tag of over $60,000 per year an elite, private college probably costs way more to attend than your local state college or university, but not necessarily.

When you learn how different schools view you and your student for purposes of determining financial aid for college, you’ll find that many of the expensive private colleges on your list may actually be your least expensive option when paying for college.

Or not. It all depends.

Of course, how much you pay for college depends on many factors, but the single biggest factor determining how much you pay often comes down to the school your student attends.

For example…

Despite the giant sticker price these schools list on their websites, some students may be able to attend Tier I colleges like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT and others – for FREE. Or close to it. Yet other students at the same school may be expected to pay much, much more.

In other cases you may find that private colleges offering merit-based financial aid could be roughly the same net cost as a state university after you factor in financial aid.

How do you know which school might be the best financial fit for you and your student?

Compare based on Net Price.

Comparing schools based on the net price you will pay is often a good starting point. These days schools are required to post a net price calculator on their website. You can find it by typing in “net price calculator” in the search bar.

The net price calculator is designed to give families an idea of how much it may cost to attend a particular school after considering financial aid and other details. It is not a guarantee of your specific financial aid award, but it can be a useful tool when comparing the net costs of various schools on your list.

Using the net price calculator on Harvard University’s website, a family with an annual income of $145,000 might pay $19,100 per year for the total cost of attendance. In fact, according to Harvard’s website, 90% of all American families would pay the same or less at Harvard as they would at a state school.

Incidentally, $19,000 is about what a typical Minnesota family would pay to attend a state college. At the University of Minnesota that same family could pay up to $25,750 per year. (Your actual costs will depend on many things, but in this example I assumed no additional financial assets, one student in college, and no additional scholarships).

For a list of schools that offer to meet 100% of a student’s financial need, click here.

Granted, the Harvard University example is a little extreme. Most kids wont be able to get in to Harvard, much less go there at a discounted rate. So let’s bring the example a little closer to home.

Keeping this simple let’s assume you are a typical Minnesota family and don’t expect anything in the way of need-based financial aid.

The total cost of attendance for a student like that at the University of Minnesota is $25,700, maybe less if they qualify for merit-based scholarships. If that same student attends the University of St. Thomas, their net price might be $32,000 after factoring in merit-based financial aid. And if they choose to attend an out of state university like the University of AZ as a non-resident, they could pay as much as $45,000 per year or more.

Time is money.

Tuition and fees, room and board, need-based and merit-based scholarships are all significant factors in how much you will pay for college, but your ultimate cost may come down to more than just the net price of tuition.

By some estimates it can take more than 6 years to get a so-called 4-year degree. The longer your student attends school the more expensive it will be for you.

What is the 4-year graduation rate of the schools you are considering? Some schools boast 4-year graduation rates over 80%. Others are below 50%.

Does your school offer a track that guarantees graduation in four years? How long does it take to get their degree program versus comparable programs at other schools? In some cases you may pay less for college by attending a more expensive school and finishing sooner.

It pays to do your research.

On her website,, Michelle Kretzschmar, lists schools in every state that accept 50% of applicants and have 4-year graduation rates of over 50%. You will find a list of 50-50 schools in your state here. You can even download a customizable Excel spreadsheet that will help you sift and sort through hundreds of schools to find the best fit for your student.

How much you pay depends on where they stay.

Every year when I do my college planning workshop, “Pay Less for College”, I say the same thing. How much you pay for college depends on the school your kids choose to attend. If you want to pay less for your student’s college education, pay attention to the schools your kids are considering.

For more information on how to pay less for college, download my eBook of the same name from Amazon. It’s available for FREE on Wednesday, March 2, one last time before I take it down and make room for a new informative resource.

Another great, free resource is my downloadable PDF, My Favorite College Planning Tools and Resources which can be found on the right-hand side of this website. Here I share my best go-to resources that I use every day when helping parents pay less for college. Like the eBook, this too will be removed in March. Download it now.

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