College is one of the best, and most expensive, investments you will ever make. Before signing on any dotted lines, it is important to know what you will actually be paying. To do that, you’ll need to know the lingo and hidden expenses of a college education. 
Here’s a good start:

First, here is a breakdown of what you will be paying for:

  • Tuition is the actual cost of classes. Some colleges charge by credit hours while others have a flat rate tuition.
  • Fees are typically program specific and dependant on the classes you take. There are some general fees that are tacked on college-wide, like a technology fee for campus resources.
  • Room and board refers to the cost of living on campus. Room is simply the housing whereas board is the different meal plans. Be wary: there are often meal plans that are more practical than others.
  • Books are needed for almost every class. Most colleges will provide an estimate of book prices, but there can be cheaper alternatives found online or via textbook rental sites.

Next, there are two actual kinds of "prices" that you might encounter. Here is what you need to know:

  • Published tuition and fees price is listed on the college website under the school’s financial aid information tab. This is the “sticker price,” or the tuition without any grants, loans or aid.
  • Net price is the estimated amount that you will pay after grants and scholarships are taken into consideration. Two excellent tools to find this price are: College Reality Check and College Cost Calculator. On each of these websites, you can find the cost that you will be expected to pay after financial aid.

Here’s why knowing the difference between the published and net prices matters. For public 2-year colleges, the published tuition and fees has generally increased each year since 1990 -- but because grant aid and tax benefits have increased at a faster rate, the average net amount paid for public 2-year colleges is actually less today than it was in 1990. Meanwhile, 4-year schools have become more expensive on average. Looking at the published price alone, you wouldn’t be able to see the full extent of the price difference between a public 2-year and 4-year school.

Important note about tuition increases: Traditionally, colleges raise their tuition every year, so the net price can also climb each year as well. However, some schools have a “fixed” tuition rate that ensures the tuition won’t increase during a set number of years at your college (normally 2 or 4).  However, fees, books, and housing costs could still increase year-to-year.

If you’re planning to reduce your “net price” -- the amount it costs YOU to go to school -- scholarships are a great way to go.  Check out our scholarship search survival guide to help maximize your scholarship potential.

Authored by Kate Hunger

Kate helps students find their best fit school. She writes about the essential, surprising, and sometimes funny questions everyone has while applying to college.