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How Much Does College Cost … For Real?

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Annual lists of the most expensive colleges in the U.S. wreak havoc with parents who have children in high school, but “the rising cost of college” has become such a common term in the news that most of us ignore it.

After all, student loan debt is on the rise, too, which means that there are methods available to help pay for college. Besides, most colleges also offer institutional scholarships and grants to deserving students, drastically lowering the “net price,” which is what a student actually pays to attend college once scholarships, grants and other discounts have been removed from the full price of tuition.

Figure out the Sticker Price of College with a Net Price Calculator

Prospective college students and their parents will soon have assistance determining how much it really costs to go to college, thanks to new federal requirements. As reported by the National Center for Educational Statistics, by October 29, 2011, all postsecondary institutions that enroll full-time, first-time degree and certificate-seeking undergraduate students and participate in Title IV federal student aid programs must post a net price calculator on its website. The net price calculator will use institutional data to provide an estimated net price based on a student’s circumstances. The calculator will calculate an estimated sticker price of tuition by subtracting a student’s total grant aid from the estimated total price of attendance.

In March 2010, when the net price calculator requirement was newly announced, The Washington Post’s College Inc. column provided a bit of information with an interview between the column’s writer Daniel de Vise and the financial aid expert and president of StudentAid.com, Jeff Whorley.

The Real Cost of College

“Most prospective college students and their families do not understand when they will learn their real cost, and they are often not aware that the sticker price of a college is not the price they’ll pay,” Whorley explained. Net price and up-front, out-of-pocket costs are generally mysteries until a prospective college student receives an acceptance and aid award letter in the spring. By that time, it’s too late to plan. The point of knowing net price and out-of-pocket costs before applying to colleges is to be well-informed about which ones will best fit a student’s academic goals and the family’s bank account.”

Despite the fact that over a month remains before the October 29 net price calculator deadline, many colleges and universities already proudly offer the financial aid estimators on their websites. "Generally, colleges are not very enthused when new federal mandates come down,” David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told Inside Higher Ed. “I can’t think of another that has had the kind of uptake that this one has.”

Information Required for Financial Aid Estimates

The University of Florida’s Net Price Calculator asks questions about the student’s birth year, state of legal residence, marital status and whether or not they have any dependents, their housing plans during college, high school GPA, and SAT and ACT scores. Meanwhile, the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities Net Price Calculator does not request information regarding GPA or standardized test scores.

Many colleges and universities have purchased net price calculators from outside companies, such as Jeff Whorley’s StudentAid.com Student Aid Services. Others, such as the above-mentioned UF and Minnesota—Twin Cities, are taking advantage of the College Board’s Net Price Calculator. Lucie Lapovsky, a consultant who specializes in higher education economics, told Inside Higher Ed that most of the calculators are fairly “generic.”

Students Want to Know How Much Financial Aid They’ll Receive

Although the calculators are just as estimation tool—as the colleges and universities’ websites are quick to point out—students and parents are finding them incredibly helpful. According to US News and World Report, the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill’s net price calculator has been used over 5,000 times since it was added to the school’s website in January.

The schools which are already offering financial aid estimators are also pleased with the results so far. Inside Higher Ed reports that a Noel-Leviz survey on marketing and recruiting practices from earlier this year found that over half of the surveyed officials from private four-year colleges and universities said that the net price calculators were “very or somewhat effective” at recruiting students.

Potential Problems with Net Price Calculators

As the net price calculators are put into use at more schools, their flaws will surely come into the spotlight. It’s easy to realize that human error from either incorrect data entry or sheer confusion may cause problems in some instances, and The New York Times points out a component of the calculators that many parents and students may accidentally overlook.

Yvonne Hubbard, the director of financial aid at the University of Virginia, stressed to the newspaper that the estimated net price is only an annual cost, and students attend college for four years. “As they plan, families must remember to multiply by four,” she said. “That’s the one thing the College Board’s calculator lacks for us, and we’ve been encouraging them to take it into consideration.”

William Goggin, the executive director of the Department of Education’s Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, may have put it best when he told The Times that his committee will assess the helpfulness of the calculators after their official launch next month: “We have to wait and see.”


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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