Comparing College Costs

A new federal law mandating that all universities supply a net-cost calculator on their website intends to reveal the hidden costs of higher education. Experts predict that comparing college costs online will one day be similar to comparing the cost of a flight between different airlines.

Currently, higher education seekers can view the average cost of a school through the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator website. But these “net-price” estimates fail to recognize that cost can vary greatly from one student to another when factors like financial aid and scholarships come into play. Princeton University, for example, listed tuition for the 2008-2009 school year at $ 49,830 but the average student actually paid $ 17,381.

Cost calculators will be most beneficial to high school students who review different schools and consider their options. Highly accurate estimates of what a student’s out-of-pocket expenses will amount to can deter them from applying to schools they cannot afford. Inversely, students will be encouraged to apply to schools they may have considered beyond their price range that actually are not. The calculator will work with data including a student’s financial status and academic record.

The U.S. Department of Education will provide schools with a free cost calculator but they are permitted to use one from a third-party developer, though these could cost schools up to $ 25,000. Customized calculators, as opposed to the standard one developed by the Department of Education, would likely provide a more accurate cost estimate to students because they could ask additional questions and calculate costs based on a more school-specific formula.

The College Board is also working to develop a similar application to make it easier for students to compare schools. Experts predict that increased access to accurate financial information will greatly impact the college admissions process. Myra Smith, executive director of financial aid services for the College Board, said that cost calculators will benefit high school students “who can see that their academic aspirations might lead to admission to a school that’s generous with financial aid.”

Under the federal law, each school’s calculator will be accompanied by a disclaimer stating that predicted costs are estimates and can vary based on each student’s individual situation.

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