College Sticker-Shock Strategies: A Father's Odyssey

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — When my high-school senior began applying to colleges this school year, a flood of dollar signs hit me in the face: dollars for school, dollars for loans and dollars for supporting him when he may have to move back home to pay off the debt.

While there remain “excellent opportunities at lower-priced public four- and two-year colleges,” as Ronald G. Ehrenberg of the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute told me, the truth is that if your teen, like mine, aspires to go to a top-tier school, visiting a school website with calculator in hand may induce sticker-shock as you realize earning a Bachelor’s could easily cost a quarter of a million dollars. Schools like Sarah Lawrence, the University of Chicago, Columbia University or Washington University in St. Louis—the four most expensive schools in the country according to Forbes—can already top $60,000 a year and are sure to cost more by the time your graduate leaves with diploma in hand.

And after burning through this mountain of cash, a scan of the Quick Facts page at the Center for College Affordability reveals 8 out of every 10 graduates move back home after college; its helpful graphic triggers nightmares of an ever-expanding brood of kids who will turn your calm retirement home into a rowdy frat pad. Golden years? Empty Nest? It’s looking more like I’ll be an involuntary landlord who moonlights at Home Depot. For. Ev. Er.

But take a deep breath. College pricing has gone the way of cell phones and tickets for Broadway shows. Remember the phone that cost $500 but you got it for $50 with a coupon and a two-year commitment plan? The half-price tickets you got for the Spiderman musical? The “price” of college is like a target no one is aiming for. What really matters is the “net price.”