A new federal report analyzes the true cost of going to college.

Share story

Hardly a week passes without the release of some new report that discusses the extraordinary growth in the cost of higher education. Lost in the debate is one caveat: A majority of students get some sort of financial aid, which makes the cost of going to college less than many think.

That’s one of the takeaways from a report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a federal agency that compiles education data.

Most reports about escalating college costs focus on the so-called “sticker price.” But as the published prices have skyrocketed, so has the amount of aid available to low-income students.

The study reports that many Americans believe college is too expensive, and some see it as prohibitively so. But for a more realistic look at the cost, it’s important to factor in financial aid (which can dramatically lower the price for some families) and the total cost of living expenses (not just tuition).

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

NCES’s numbers lag by a few years — the latest numbers available are for the 2011-12 school year. Still, a number of states in recent years have frozen tuition, including Washington, so the figures probably aren’t too far off today’s net prices.

One surprising figure: When out-of-pocket net price was taken into account, a year at a public two-year college wasn’t much less expensive than a year at a public four-year college. Nationally, the average out-of-pocket net price for a community college was $9,900 a year, and for a public four-year, $11,800 a year.

For students at community colleges, the non-tuition expenses — books, supplies, housing, meals and transportation — eclipse the cost of tuition. NCES estimated that it costs about $12,200 a year in non-tuition expenses to attend community college. The average tuition at two-year schools was $2,800. (Note that tuition at Washington’s community colleges is above the national average — about $4,000 a year. But one factor that may blunt the cost: The ability to live at home with parents, an easier arrangement to accomplish in a state with 34 two-year colleges, most of them located in the state’s most populous counties.)

Many colleges publish, on their websites, a price calculator to help families figure out what college might really cost when income is taken into account. If you’re interested in those numbers, there are a couple of different ways to find them. The College Board offers a one-stop-shopping price calculator on its website that will figure the price for different colleges.

Or do a search for “net price calculator” and the name of the institution you’re interested in. A search of “net price calculator University of Washington,” for example, yields this link. You’ll need to have some information from the family’s most recent tax returns in hand to get an accurate number.