If the term “sticker price” brings to mind car dealership jingles – as in, “At Alakazam Auto, you’ll never pay sticker price for a new car!” – you’re not alone. 

However, it turns out even higher education has a sticker price. But there’s good news: Unlike most car dealerships, you don’t have to haggle your way to netting a good deal. We’ll help you figure out what the costs of education mean, what financial aid is and where to find it, and how to understand your financial aid offer when you receive it.

Sticker Price

The sticker price is the estimated cost of attendance at a given college or university for one academic year. It includes both direct, institutional costs and indirect, non-institutional costs.

two students walking on a bridge

Institutional costs are paid directly to the university and include tuition, housing, food, and “standard fees” that cover things like campus security, parking, student activities, etc.

Non-institutional costs are paid to others and may include things like off-campus housing, books, supplies, transportation, and personal expenses. 

As you can imagine, this can really add up! But not all of these costs are being paid directly to the university. In addition, you may not need to pay some of them at all, or the costs may be less than estimated. Do your classes only require online texts, not physical books? You don’t need transportation because you’re living on campus? Great! That will reduce your personal cost.

Remember, the sticker price includes everything a student might need, and it’s only an estimate. 

Bottom Line: The sticker price is rarely, if ever, what you actually pay for college. Read on to find out how costs are reduced with “tuition discounts” and financial aid.

Tuition Discounts, a.k.a. Grants & Scholarships

The next factor to consider on our journey toward net price is tuition discount, which is any type of financial aid a school uses to reduce the cost of attendance for its students, typically in the form of institutional grants and scholarships.

Tuition discounts have increased in recent years, reaching an all-time high in 2023, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO). This means that the gap between the sticker price and what college students actually pay is bigger than ever before.

Sticker Price - Grants & Scholarships = Net Price

Here’s where you really want to pay attention! The net price is the actual price you will pay for school once your grants and scholarships have been applied. 

The amount of total grants and scholarships you receive can vary greatly depending on the school you are attending.

This means that a college with a higher sticker price can end up costing less than a college with a lower sticker price, and it all comes down to financial aid. 

Calculating Net Price and Comparing College Financial Aid Offers

Reading a college financial aid offer can feel like learning to decipher a new language. It’s important to compare apples to apples when looking at your aid offers. 

Here’s how to calculate the net price and compare college financial aid offers:

  1. Add up the direct costs on your aid offer: tuition, housing, food, and “standard fees” (which may also be called “comprehensive fees” or something similar). They make up the balance you will owe to the university. 
  2. Subtract the gift aid (scholarships and grants) you are offered: Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, state grants, and institutional grants and scholarships. Note the total. This is your net price. (Some schools will automatically add a Parent PLUS loan to your aid package, making it look like your net price is zero. Don’t include any kind of loans in your calculation for net price.)
  3. Now separately add up all loans you are offered (this will likely be Stafford loans and PLUS loans), and consider the cost over the course of your academic career. These will need to be repaid when you graduate. 
  4. Subtract the loans from your total in Step 2 if you decide to accept them. 
  5. This is your out-of-pocket cost after all aid (including loans) has been applied. 
  6. Repeat this process for each school in order to see how they stack up!

Pro Tip: Highlight scholarships and grants in one color and loans in another color in order to help you compare aid offers. 

It’s not always easy to tell what’s what in your financial aid offer. For instance, which aid is free money you don’t have to repay, and which is loans that will come due once you’re no longer enrolled full time? Are the scholarships you’re being offered renewable every year, or are they only available your first year of college? Do you have to meet eligibility requirements in order to keep them?

It’s important to look closely and ask these questions. Financial aid counselors at each school are your best resource to understand what’s being offered to you, but let’s dig into some of the things you may find in your financial aid offer.

What’s in My Financial Aid Offer?

Financial aid can help pay for anything within a student’s cost of attendance budget, from tuition to a personal computer or even a background check for a required internship.

Financial aid varies widely from student to student based on need and merit. And the same student is likely to receive a different aid package at each school he or she applies to, because universities offer different types of institutional aid and participate in different types of federal and state aid programs. 

Your financial aid package may include federal and state-based financial aid. This can be grants you do not have to repay, such as the Pell Grant and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant. Oregon residents attending in-state may see an Oregon Opportunity Grant.

It can also be aid in the form of loans you have to repay, like Stafford loans or the Parent or Grad PLUS loan.

student reading a book

The key is to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) each aid year in order to find out which types of aid you qualify for. Even if you don’t qualify for need-based aid, filing the FAFSA makes you eligible to receive non-need-based federal student loans. 

Your aid package may also include institutional aid. At George Fox, we offer traditional undergraduates a merit scholarship based on their high school GPA, as well as the Scholarship Summit award, Visit Experience Scholarship, and various donor-funded scholarships, just to name a few. And we lock in that aid for as long you are enrolled full time and meeting satisfactory academic progress! 

Some institutions, including George Fox, also use the FAFSA as a way to evaluate need for some institutional aid. Yet another reason to file that FAFSA!

Some schools have their own application process to apply for scholarships and grants. And many will have plenty of ideas for how to search for more aid both locally and nationally. (Check out our outside scholarships page for some great resources!) Be sure to pay attention to application deadlines so that you don’t miss out on free money.

Although college financial aid can feel overwhelming, understanding and comparing financial aid offers is crucial because they can significantly reduce the net price of college, making a seemingly expensive education more affordable.

Plus, there are people in your corner. If you’re applying to George Fox, our friendly and knowledgeable financial aid team is ready to help answer your questions!

Contact Financial Aid

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