As newly minted graduates collect their diplomas this year, many will have spent more for their degrees than anyone in American history. But not all students pay through the nose to get a sheepskin. While the nominal price of tuition has soared over the past two decades (up 111% since 1995 for public schools), the actual price most people pay has crept up only 50%—and just 17% for private schools, according to the College Board. That’s because government aid and scholarships have kept the net costs lower than the ones that schools advertise to prospective recruits. But the sticker prices still have a chilling effect: They can deter less affluent students from applying at all.
This story is from the May 1, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine.