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College costs are skyrocketing. Here's how to figure out what you can afford

The cost of college tuition has more than doubled in the past three decades.
Photo collage of woman hanging off graduation cap onto an open book with money flying around her
According to the College Board, over 60% of full-time first-time students receive grant aid to help pay for college, which is separate from student loans that they will need to eventually pay back.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

For many high school seniors, getting into college is easier than figuring out how to pay for it. Over the past three decades, college tuition costs have skyrocketed. According to data from The College Board, tuition at four-year public schools has jumped from around $4,000 annually to $10,000; at private schools, the cost has gone from $18,000 to over $37,000. That increase is a top concern for parents. According to a recent NBC News Challenge Success survey, 56% of parents cite tuition costs and financial aid as a top concern in their child’s school choice.

What’s been driving up the costs? According to Ron Lieber, author of "The Price You Pay for College," lack of government funding for state schools and increased demand for faculty, resources and amenities at all colleges is to blame.

“The fact of the matter is, is that these are not cheap places to run,” Lieber said. “The challenge for families is that incomes have stagnated for the most part, unless you're in the upper middle class and above, so things (like college) where the net price has actually grown over time by a lot are in fact that much more expensive for most Americans.”

When it comes to figuring out what you and your child can afford, here’s what you need to know.

Apply for every kind of aid you can

If that $37,000 price tag gives you nightmares, know you may not be on the hook for all of it. According to the College Board, over 60% of full-time first-time students receive grant aid to help pay for college, which is separate from student loans that they will need to eventually pay back.

“The majority of students in this country don't pay the sticker price, and so it's important to fill out the financial aid forms and see what you qualify for,” according to Angel Perez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “Often, very high-priced institutions end up being very affordable, especially for the lowest income students in this country.”

Even colleges that have no shortage of willing students can provide aid to stay in good standing with peers and the government. “The most selective institutions in America do want to maintain a good reputation in the world, and particularly in Congress,” Lieber said. “They are generous with aid for families that can prove that they need at least a little bit of help.”

Negotiate the financial aid offers you receive

When you do start receiving financial aid offers, you can usually appeal for more money via the college’s financial aid office to make school more affordable.

"Financial aid offers are always negotiable,” Lieber explained, “but the people who control the money don't like feeling like you used car dealers, so you want to treat them with respect and humility.”

Perez said that in most cases, schools need students just as much as students need them. “The reality of the matter is students still are in control of this process. Colleges and universities are eager to receive students, so don't forget that students can definitely lead this conversation.”

Additionally, if your family’s financial situation has changed significantly since you filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you may be eligible to have your aid adjusted. Go to for more information.

Have honest conversations with your kids about what you can really afford

Decisions on how to pay and how much to pay for college can impact your whole family, and it’s important to start those conversations as early as eighth or ninth grade, instead of waiting until your child’s senior year of high school.

“It's important for students and families to have frank conversations about affordability when they start the process,” Perez said. “Have a conversation about what can the family afford versus what they're willing to pay, which is very different, and compare financial aid awards, and eventually make the decision that is the best financial decision for the entire family.”