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payingForCollege (1)I recently had an insight about college pricing: it’s like shopping at Kohl’s. No one pays the list price, but you won’t know what you will actually pay until it’s checkout and all the special discounts and friends and cardholder bonuses and Kohl’s Cash are applied.

A scholarship tied to a GPA is like Kohl’s Cash: you might be able to use the Kohl’s cash before it expires, and you might keep your GPA high enough to renew the scholarship. There’s also a perfectly good chance that it will worthless.

It’s a little frustrating to parents trying to figure out the best deal. In general, most public universities offer only need-based aid, and much of that is in the form of loans. Private colleges tend to offer both need-based and merit aid. Some students will find that the price of private college is less than the price of a public university, others will not.

At one college we visited, the tour guide told us to ignore the official tuition price because 99% of students received a scholarship. Like at Kohl’s, no one pays the sticker price. But then what do they pay? Is the discount 5%, or 50%?

Who knows? It’s more art than science, balancing reputation, mission, and enrollment.

There are more wrinkles. Some colleges accept AP and IB credit, some don’t. Some will allow students to use outside scholarships earned with no restrictions, and others will reduce the financial aid package dollar for dollar. Some schools have accelerated graduation programs. Some are set up so that the majority of students graduate in four years. And some, nudge nudge wink wink, are really five-year programs.

Or, to continue the Kohl’s analogy, is the item something you will wear a lot, or will you get tired of it and need to replace it?

So what’s a poor parent to do?

Colleges have net cost calculators, which can help. In general, colleges with larger endowments and larger alumni bases can provide more aid than colleges that do not. In general, private schools have shorter time to graduation than public schools. In general, public schools are more willing to accept AP and IB credit than private schools.

Beyond that, tell your child you won’t commit until the offers come in. It’s sad that this is the state of the world, but it is.