Everybody knows that college is expensive—and that choosing a school is one of the biggest financial decisions many families ever have to make. With tuition, room and board, textbooks, and incidental costs, a public university could run you $20,000 a year or more, even if you qualify for in-state tuition. A highly selective private college can set you back $70,000.
Even families who are well aware of the cost of college are often surprised when the bills actually start coming due. Half of today’s students and parents of current students report that college has turned out to be even more expensive than they expected, according to a new survey by MONEY and Barnes & Noble College. And the financial impact of the college you choose doesn’t end when you write your final tuition check or make your last loan payment. Jordan Matsudaira, a Cornell economist who oversaw the creation of the federal government’s new College Scorecard website, notes that which college a student attends can affect his or her future income by as much as 20% a year, or an average of nearly $600,000 in lifetime earnings.