If the sticker price for the college of your dreams is a lie, what will you pay? That depends. Certain schools are better prepared to offer you money than others. Despite the terrifying price tags, the most expensive schools in the country are frequently more affordable for low, middle, and even upper middle income students than cheaper state institutions. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, students whose families earn below $110,000 per year will pay less to go to Harvard (which charges over $54,000 per year) than to attend Delaware State University where the in-state price tag is less than half of Harvard's.
If you can't tell the price of a school by its cover, where can you look? As of October, schools are required to put a net price calculator on their web site which should give you an idea of how much aid you're eligible for before you apply. Until then, head to College Navigator to look up the net price of your dream school according to your income bracket. While there is no guarantee that you will pay the net price, that figure will give you a firm idea of how much your economic peers are paying to attend that prestigious institution. While you are there, check out the graduation rate too. A low price tag or lucrative financial aid package mean nothing if you have to spend five or six years getting your degree.
With net price in hand, you should either feel substantially better about paying for your dream school or much, much worse. If you find yourself in the emotional bog of eternal stench, do not get flustered yet. There are A LOT of financial aid options out there, even if your school is not willing to pick up the bill.