College: Much Cheaper Than You Might Think

It's a point we've made a million times. We're making it again.

What's the most expensive college in America? Ask Google, Princeton Review, or the Chronicle of Higher Education, and you'll get the same answer: Sarah Lawrence University at $61,236.

It's kind of crazy. No, not (just) the price. It's crazy that when we talk about price, we often only talk about tuition, a sticker shock that only 35 percent of Sarah Lawrence graduates pay in full.

The Sarah Lawrence story is typical. Only a third of full-time students at four-year public and private schools pay the published price at a college. The vast majority pay a discount thanks to grants and other aid. For the typical student at a private non-profit college, the net cost of school is less than half the sticker price.

College tuitions aren't just more expensive than the net cost, as the first graph on this post shows. The price you see is also growing much faster than the price you pay. Between 2000 and 2012, the sticker price at public four-year colleges rose more than 35 percent thanks to expanding school administration staff and falling state support. But average out-of-pocket costs? They only grew by 16 percent. At private non-profit four-year universities, the growth of tuition outpaced the growth of out-of-pocket costs 31%-8%.

Upshot: The cost of college is rising no matter how you slice it. But if you stop after staring slack-jawed at the sticker price, you're witnessing inflation that most college students and their families aren't actually feeling.

Presented by

Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Things Not to Say to a Pregnant Woman

You don't have to tell her how big she is. You don't need to touch her belly.

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Business

Just In