As an advisor, you've probably seen both of these scenarios.
A middle or lower-class family with an exceptionally bright student is only sending applications to state schools or other local schools they believe are affordable because the big sticker prices at private colleges immediately turn them off. Many families unfamiliar with college pricing are passing up what may be a great opportunity for their student.
A mid to upper class family believes education is important. So important that price is no issue. Their student is prodded and encouraged to apply to elite, expensive, private schools even though they are likely to be able to receive much financial aid or merit aid. When financial aid offers come in, the family is shocked by the high tuition bill they will end up paying out of pocket.
Net Price = Sticker Price - Grants & Scholarships
To really determine how much a family will be paying, a simple calculation would be the school's advertised sticker price minus any grants and scholarships the family has been awarded. This will generally vary by the family's income level.
The Importance of Accurately Estimating Costs
To get the best estimate, families can make use of price estimating tools on each colleges website. They should be encouraged to do so in order to get the most realistic picture possible of what they'll have to pay.
The more informed a family is about costs the more power they have to choose wisely as well as to negotiate with colleges. When it comes time to receive their financial aid offers they should know what to expect, and know what they can do if the financial aid offer is not as generous as they expected. Costs can be negotiated, and families absolutely should contact the financial aid office if their offer does not meet expectations.