Photograph of the Firestone Library on the Princeton University campus.

Firestone Library, Princeton University. Photo via Flickr.

Most students who consider attending one of this country’s most elite colleges like Harvard and Stanford, think of them as dream schools. Even some well-qualified students shy away from applying, thinking they could never afford tuition. The good news is that, for most students, Ivy League colleges and other elite, selective universities are often actually some of the most affordable colleges in the country.

Colleges are required to publish an annual cost of attendance. This price includes tuition and fees, transportation, room and board, books, and some miscellaneous expenses. At elite private colleges, the cost of attendance is commonly around $60,000 a year.

Ivy League colleges: Sticker price vs Net price

So, how could they possibly be the most affordable colleges in the country?

It comes down to understanding net price vs sticker price and how colleges award financial aid.

The published cost of attendance is also called a school’s “sticker price”. Most students don’t pay sticker price to go to college. Instead, they pay the “net price,” which is the annual cost after financial aid is factored in.

Ivy League college financial aid

Selective colleges tend to be generous with need-based financial aid. In 2012, the average Harvard student with financial need received $39,754 in need-based grant funds. At Stanford, this number was $36,389.

Grants are awarded on a sliding scale–meaning the higher your financial need, the more grant aid you’re eligible to receive. Harvard, for instance, pledges to meet 100 percent of need for students whose families make under $60,000 a year.

Wonder how much it would cost you to go to Harvard?

College Raptor can be used to quickly estimate your net price at Harvard, Stanford, and any other four-year college in the U.S., showing you which schools may offer you the best financial aid and will actually be most affordable for you.

Selective colleges also tend to practice need-blind admissions. This means that your chances of being accepted to a college are not affected by your ability to pay.

If you feel you’re qualified, don’t be scared away from applying because of a college’s sticker price. Instead, use net price to compare college financially.