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It costs over $70,000 a year to go to Harvard—but here's how much students actually pay

Graduating students pose for a group selfie before the 365th Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S. May 26, 2016.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder

College tuition prices have skyrocketed over the past several decades, a situation that's contributed to record-breaking levels of student debt. According to the Federal Reserve, Americans owed over $1.5 trillion in student loans in the fourth quarter of 2018.

But tuition rates and published sticker prices are not entirely indicative of the cost of college today.

Private non-profit, four-year schools have some of the highest four-year graduation rates and graduate some of the highest-earning students — but they also have the biggest sticker prices.

During the 2018-2019 school year, the reported tuition at private non-profit four-year schools was an average $35,830. But in reality, many students end up paying far less after grants and scholarships are factored in. The average net price of tuition and fees in 2019 is $14,610.

And that applies even at ratified institutions like Harvard University. Though tuition at Harvard is $47,730, and the cost of attendance can be as much as $78,200, many students end up paying significantly less.

Harvard University's main campus in Cambridge, MA.
Getty Images

According to Harvard's website, tuition costs for the 2019-2020 school year total $47,730, fees are $4,195, and room and board costs $17,682 for a subtotal of billed costs of $69,607.

After estimating personal expenses like text books ($4,193) and travel costs ($0-$4,400), Harvard estimates total billed and unbilled costs of about $73,800-$78,200 per year to attend the prestigious school — up from $71,650-$76,650 the previous year.

But the school reports that about 70% of Harvard students receive some form of financial aid, and claims that students whose parents make less than $65,000 are not expected to contribute any funds, and that "90% of American families would pay the same or less to send their children to Harvard as they would a state school."

About 55% of Harvard students receive need-based scholarship aid with average grant totals around $53,000.

The school states that families with students who receive scholarship funds pay an average of $12,000 towards their education per year and that students from families that earn between $65,000 and $150,000 typically contribute between 0% to 10% of their income towards the cost of attending Harvard each year.

Harvard, like many other schools, offers a net price calculator to help students estimate how much their families would be expected to pay.

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Harvard is able to contribute this kind of financial support in part because of an endowment worth approximately $39.2 billion. And while this generous aid may help some students, about 30% of Harvard students receive no financial aid.

According to The New York Times, the median family income of a student from Harvard is $168,800, and 67% of students come from the highest-earning 20% of American households. About 15% come from families in the top 1% of American wealth distribution.

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Of course, Harvard is not alone in admitting a disproportionate number of students from wealthy families. Harvard's own Raj Chetty conducted extensive research on the wealth distribution of American college students and found that students from the top 1% of households are 77 times more likely to be admitted to and attend an Ivy League school than students from families who make less than $30,000 a year.

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Graduating students pose for a group selfie before the 365th Commencement Exercises at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S. May 26, 2016.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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