When considering how much it costs to actually attend college, critics often forget that there’s a big difference between how much colleges officially charge and how much most families actually pay. According to a piece by Jacob Goldstein at NPR:

But the sticker price for a year of college is a lot different than what people actually pay — and private colleges have grown a bit more aggressive in offering discounts in recent years, according to a report out today from the College Board.

Colleges don’t, of course, call it a “discount rate.” Such a direct reference to commerce would seem a little tacky. As Goldstein puts it:

The combination of higher prices and more scholarships can be good marketing. In an article today, U.S. News wrote: “College officials fear that Walmart-esque everyday low pricing would actually drive more applicants away because many students and parents assume that higher tuition prices mean a higher quality education.”

But it looks like as tuition rises, so does financial aid, at about the same rate.

Check out this graph from the College Board. The top line represents the publicized tuition rate at private colleges over the last decade, the bottom line represents what the average student actually pays.


Of course, the real amount people pay to go to college is still rising, but it’s not nearly as high as we think.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer