Understanding the Real Cost of Attending College

Did you know many students don’t pay the full cost of tuition advertised by colleges and universities?

If you and your family are worrying about the cost of attending college, keep reading to learn more about the difference between a school’s stated tuition and what many students actually pay to attend.

Every year, many students and their families look at the tuition listed by schools and think, “how are we going to afford that?”

It’s important to understand that the tuition amount listed is often not what many students end up paying to attend a school. This is especially important for first-generation, low income, and independent students to understand—as many often believe they’ll be responsible for paying the full amount, which can discourage them from pursuing a college degree. This assumption often stems from a lack of guidance and resources to navigate the intricacies of the college admissions process, which seems to grow more complicated and involved each year.

But here at Georgia State, we’re striving to help students understand the admissions process and learn how to take a proactive approach to making the transition from high school to college. A big part of this involves recognizing how they can make college affordable. There are numerous forms of financial aid such as scholarships, grants, and loans that are available to most students that can help lessen—sometimes dramatically—the costs associated with attending college.

Help begins with the FAFSA

You’ve probably heard of the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. College-bound students and their families should consider the FAFSA their best friend; it’s one of the most important tools they can use to help them make the transition from high school to college, as well as help them afford to stay in college.

The results of the FAFSA determine what kind and how much federal financial aid each student is eligible to receive. This aid may come in the form of Federal Pell Grants, eligibility to participate in Federal Work-Study Programs on the student’s campus, and different kinds of loans.

It’s helpful to keep in mind that student loans from the federal government—such as those offered after completing the FAFSA—are preferable over private student loans from banks, which often come with higher interest rates and other conditions that aren’t advantageous to students. Given the choice between taking out a federal or a private loan, students should always pick the federal loan.

This year, the FAFSA opens on October 1, and students are strongly encouraged to apply as early as possible. They will need certain information and documents to complete their applications, such as:

  • Their social security number
  • Their alien registration number (if they are not a U.S. citizen)
  • Their most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned (if they have a work history of their own)
  • Their parents’ or guardians’ most recent federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money earned

The schools students apply to will also receive the results of their FAFSAs, and will take these results into account when they put together financial aid packages for each student. This means that in addition to financial aid that may be offered by the federal government, each college or university a student applies to may also offer their own kinds of financial aid. This may come in the form of merit grants, for example. These are grants that are awarded to high-achieving students demonstrating financial need.

All of this means that the dollar amount a student is responsible for paying to attend a school may decrease significantly based on the results of their FAFSA application. That’s great news! Make sure you apply for financial aid using the FAFSA!


In addition to need-based financial aid, students should also pursue merit-based aid such as academic or athletic scholarships, which can also significantly decrease the amount students actually pay to attend a school. Georgia State offers several generous scholarships based on academic performance in high school. These kinds of scholarships are often renewable as long as the student continues to make good grades in college.

There are also numerous free scholarship databases students can search to find sources of funding. For example, Georgia State’s Scholarship Resource Center allows students to conduct online scholarship searches year-round. The center also offers in-person assistance, too, in the form of workshops and writing assistance for personal essays.

Students should also know they don’t have to pay anyone to gain access to scholarship information. There are plenty of online scholarship databases they can search for free. Students can also go directly to the philanthropic websites of major corporations, such as the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation or the Ford Blue Oval Scholar program, and search for student scholarship opportunities directly. Good luck!

Students’ Return on Their Investment

Another big part of understanding the real cost of attending college involves acknowledging the return on their investment when students earn their degrees. To put it another way, can you really afford not to go to college? Numerous studies have shown the advantages of earning a bachelor’s degree, including the ability to find year round full-time work and higher lifetime earnings compared to those with only a high school diploma. That’s a big point to think about!

At Georgia State, we’re doing everything we can to make sure our students are able to afford the costs associated with attending college. Click here to learn more about the many resources we offer to help make college affordable.


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