How much does college actually cost?

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There are more than 4,400 colleges in the U.S. with prices ranging from zero to more than $60,000 per year.

In the 2011-12 academic year, the average net cost for a full-time student at an in-state public university was about $15,000 for tuition, fees, room, board, books and incidental expenses, according to the College Board.

Of course, no student or college is exactly "average." Most colleges quote several different prices, depending on whether they include fees beyond tuition in the total, for example. And students can pay different prices depending upon their courses, majors, and income.

Here's how to figure out how much college will cost you, and how to make it a little more affordable.

Getting started: Avoid unpleasant surprises by understanding what colleges mean by "price." Don't let colleges lowball you and later hit you with big charges.

How much will I actually pay for college? You won't know exactly what you'll pay for any college until you're admitted and receive a letter or email from the college listing your total charges, or net price. But there are ways to get a fairly accurate estimate of what college will cost you.

How to go to college for free. Elite athletes have long gotten free rides at schools with top sports teams, and many schools offer full-tuition scholarships for especially outstanding students. But you don't need to be a football star or a math genius to get a higher education for next to nothing.

How to find cheap colleges. Want to find a school that charges $5,000 or less in tuition each year? We offer some helpful tips for finding cheap schools and college courses.

How to find mid-priced colleges. If you've got a little more money to spend on your education, say $15,000 a year, these schools offers a great education at a moderate price.

NEXT: Shopping around: Terms you need to know To top of page

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