The Price You Pay For College

In all my years of writing about money, I have come across no consumer decision that inspires more confusion and emotion than the question of what to pay for college.

Sticker prices at flagship state universities can now top $125,000 for four years of tuition, room and board for state residents. At many selective private colleges, students who began this past fall will pay $300,000. Discounts are available, but the financial aid system that governs them works differently at different schools and can be wildly unpredictable.

Once you have offers of admission and aid, you have to make a decision about value. When does paying an extra $50,000 or $150,000 for one school over another make sense? For a smaller or larger size? For access to professors or guaranteed internships? For an alumni network that is quantifiably stronger than others? And in considering all these questions as parents, how do we reckon with the guilt, fear, aspiration and snobbery that inevitably invade our minds in the process?

In this book, the culmination of 15 years of personal finance reporting for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, I’ll ask college presidents questions that families don’t know (or are afraid) to ask, put the surprisingly small amount of existing data on this topic into context, summarize the research that does exist about what matters and what doesn’t and pull the curtain back on how schools set prices.

Thanks, as always, for joining me on this quest.

Sign up for tips on how to have more useful and meaningful family conversations about money, plus updates on my ongoing work.