How Much College Can You Really Afford? Take These 3 Simple Steps For The Answer

African American woman holding a fan of money in front of her face.

How Much College Can You Really Afford? Take These 3 Simple Steps For The Answer

Published April 8, 2024

African American woman holding a fan of money in front of her face.

After sending four kids to college with a fifth on the way there soon, I’ve learned a thing or two about making college affordable. Here, I cut through the noise and provide the three most important things for parents and students to know about affording college from a mom who’s been there — five times!

  1. The cost you’ll end up paying for college will vary widely, in some cases by tens of thousands of dollars per year, and maybe even by hundreds of thousands of dollars over four years depending on the school you enroll in.
  2. The full sticker price, or Cost of Attendance (COA), isn’t always a great indication of how much you’ll pay. Some of the colleges with the highest sticker prices will end up being more affordable than community colleges for students with high financial needs. Whereas some of the colleges with lower full-price COAs that offer next to no merit-based scholarships or need-based aid may be among your most expensive choices.
  3. Students attending the same college, living in the same dorm, with the same meal plan, and even within the same major, don’t always pay anywhere close to the same amount of money to be there. Here’s why:
  • Academic merit scholarships
  • Federal grants
  • State grants
  • Institutional grants and scholarships

This is money for college that doesn’t need to be paid back, and it drastically changes the amount left for you to pay. So before you visit a college, and certainly before applying, especially if you don’t have unlimited amounts of money, it’s critical to know how much the parents and the students need to pay (or borrow) to attend.

And this is how you find that out … THE NET PRICE CALCULATOR (NPC)

Google {name of the college} + “net price calculator” and you’ll find the specific NPC for the college you’re considering. You don’t have to enter your name or contact info if you don’t want to, but the NPC will ask questions so it can provide a close estimate of what a specific student would have to pay to go to their school.

Questions You Can Expect the NPC to Ask

Below is a snapshot of some of the data that will be requested of you.

  • Your home state (to evaluate if you’ll qualify for an in-state or neighboring state discounted tuition rate, if available.)
  • Your stats: grade point average, SAT/ACT scores, and class rank (to evaluate if you will qualify for institutionally-provided academic merit scholarships.)
  • The student’s savings and income + the parents’ savings and income to see if you will qualify for federal aid like a Pell Grant, and/or if you qualify for any of your state’s need-based aid or any institutional need-based aid. Not every state or college offers need-based financial aid, so even if you are close to indigent, don’t expect to be able to afford every college. Consider yourself forewarned. 

The NPCs that ask a lot of questions tend to be the most accurate. The results of the NPC will look a lot like a financial aid award letter. It will show you the cost of attendance minus any merit or need-based financial aid that a student with those particular stats and finances from that state would receive.

Filling Out The NPC is the First Thing to Do When Considering a College

This is especially true if you might not be able to afford the full four years of college.

On a personal note, I was surprised to discover that a handful of expensive sticker-price schools were going to cost less than our state school after their merit and or need-based aid was factored in. There are maybe a few dozen colleges that are so generous that they’ll meet your full need without including loans in the aid package, and some even make admissions decisions without regarding a student’s ability to pay. 

But the catch is these schools are inundated with qualified applicants every year and are very hard to get into, no matter how qualified the student is. 

If you do nothing else, know from the start how much a particular school is likely to cost you, and don’t rely on the sticker price to do it. Some colleges that cost almost $90,000 a year end up practically free for some kids! And some colleges that cost less than half of that would have that same student paying or borrowing $45,000 per year to attend.

My advice? Cross things off your list that you absolutely can’t afford for certain, with one caveat: If there’s a competitive academic merit scholarship available they have a chance of winning that would make it within your budget. Otherwise, Don’t have your kid test-driving a Lamborghini when you’ve got a used Fiat budget!


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

What Exactly is ‘Good’ Merit and How Do I Keep It Once I’ve Got It?

How to Make Affordable Colleges Even More Affordable

How to Pick a College That Loves You Back




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