From a full ride to half a million dollars, it seems there’s a wide range when it comes to how much college actually costs.

Even when you talk with financial aid experts, the answer is likely to be, “it depends.” But how can you plan and budget for college if you don’t have a ballpark idea of how much you’ll pay? Here’s how to get a sense of how much college might cost for you and your family.

Look Beyond Sticker Price and Find the Net Price

“Families often look at the cost of attendance of a school and experience sticker shock. But this is not likely what most families will pay,” says Jennifer Maclure, founder of My Pathway to College. The net price is the tuition for a single academic year minus what the student receives in grants and scholarships. To find the net price, look for the net price calculator, which is usually linked on the financial aid page and also searchable through the US Department of Education. This requires you to input some information (such as household income) so you can see how much comparable households paid to get a sense of what it might actually cost for you.

Talk With Your Family about Contribution Expectations

Not all family finances are the same, so it’s good to sit down and discuss the plan to pay for college. You should talk about their expectations, whether they are able to contribute, and if they are comfortable either taking out or paying toward any loans. This way you will have a better idea of your budget and the types of school you can target in terms of affordability. For example, you may need to focus on schools that offer more grants, scholarships, and other need-based aid if you have fewer resources to pay out of pocket.

You can also have a conversation with your high school counselor. They are likely to know which colleges have more generous financial aid packages. It also may be helpful to include certain reach schools on your list if you’re a competitive candidate. For example, some Ivy League and top-tier liberal arts colleges offer free tuition for students whose parents make below a certain income threshold, such as under $125,000.

Understand How Grants and Scholarships Work

Unlike loans, grants and scholarships are money you don’t have to pay back. According to the Education Data Initiative, grants and scholarships cover $7,500 of academic costs per student, which is roughly 25% of their annual college costs. Some schools label themselves as “no loan” schools, which means that they will use grants, scholarships, and Work-Study to make up the difference between what a family can afford to pay and what college will cost.

While you might be offered grants and scholarships from the schools you’re accepted to, you should also look for external scholarships. These can make a difference in the cost of admission. Be on the lookout for scholarships that fit your criteria and set up a system for applying. And remember–you don’t need to be a top student to win because scholarships are based on more than just merit. Searching with specific details about yourself, such as your state of residence, intended major, or hobbies and activities can help you find targeted scholarships that fit your profile. Also, don’t discount smaller scholarships. They are often less competitive because they have more niche criteria so fewer people apply. Get started using a free online search tool, and check with your high school counselor for suggestions.

Experiment With Different What-If Scenarios

Part of how much you’ll pay for college depends on you.

  • What would college costs look like if you went to community college for two years and transferred?
  • What if you tried to graduate in three years?
  • What if you lived at home and commuted?

Playing with these what-ifs can substantially change the sticker price of what a college education might cost you, notes Bob Chitrathorn, the CFO of Simplified Wealth Management, a financial advising firm in Corona, California.

In the runup to admissions, affordability can be something that takes a backburner to acceptance. Understanding potential tuition obligations can help you target schools that are a good fit for your future goals—and your financial future, too.

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

Discover® Student Loans encourages you to consult a financial planner before making financial transactions. You should also consult a tax professional for tax advice.

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