Wellesley College in Massachusetts. (Courtesy of Wellesley)

When his two sons were growing up, a college professor named Phillip Levine found himself 10 years ago asking a question on the minds of parents perennially worried about the price of higher education: Would they qualify for financial aid?

Levine, a Wellesley College economist, was frustrated to learn there were no easy answers beyond the scary sticker prices and pledges from certain colleges that they would meet the need of students they admit.

“How can you expect people to make educated decisions about the right thing to do when they have absolutely no idea what the cost is?” Levine said. “It’s crazy.”

So Levine set out to build a tool that would provide some quick and reliable answers. On Wednesday, Yale University and 15 other schools announced that they would use a version of his calculator now known as MyinTuition. (Get it?) That brought the total involved in his nonprofit initiative to 31, including Wellesley, which in 2013 became the first to use Levine’s calculator.


Phillip Levine (Wellesley)

Levine is quick to point out that his calculators are meant to complement, not replace, the “net price calculators” that colleges have been required to post online since 2011. But the net price calculators are often cumbersome. Levine and other experts say many users, facing a slew of complicated questions about tax returns, assets and home equity, fail to take advantage of them.

Levine’s tool aims to give families a fast and effective answer to the question of whether they could afford a given school at a time when listed prices — counting tuition, fees, housing, meals and other expenses — for private colleges can top $70,000 a year.

It asks users a series of easy-to-follow questions about citizenship status, living situation, family income, home value, mortgage balance, cash on hand, retirement plans and other investments. It also asks whether any siblings are in college. Then, using the college’s aid policies, the calculator produces an instant estimate of what the student and family might expect to pay out of pocket and what might be provided as grants, loans and work-study. The whole exercise is meant to take about three minutes.

Take a family of four with income of $70,000 a year, cash of $5,000, non-retirement investments of $25,000, and home equity of $25,000. If the sibling is not in college, the estimated expected family contribution for Wellesley would be $5,000 to $15,500 a year. If the sibling is in college, the family’s contribution range for the women’s college would be $3,000 to $9,300 a year. In addition, the calculator tells this prospective student that she would be expected to borrow $1,800 a year and earn $2,100 through a work-study program. The rest of the college’s $68,000 annual expense would be covered by grants and scholarships.

The calculator cautions consumers that a detailed analysis of family finances could produce a considerably different result. It points them to the net price calculator to get more information. Levine said financial circumstances can be especially tricky for students from divorced families. But he noted that retirement savings are not included in the formula. The calculator only asks about retirement savings to ensure that families don’t include that sort of funding when they seek aid estimates.

Misperceptions about price matter hugely, Levine said. “This whole issue is about social mobility,” he said. “Here you have opportunities where kids are qualified to go to high-level institutions, and don’t because they don’t understand the price. That’s a huge failure.”

Mark Dunn, associate director of admissions at Yale, said the university hopes the MyinTuition calculator will fill an information gap about college expenses. Like many other highly selective schools, Yale promises prospective students that it will meet their financial need. But Dunn acknowledged that many remain skeptical. “Our sense is that until you can actually see what a need-based financial aid award would mean for your family, it’s hard to honestly believe” what colleges say, Dunn said. He said Yale plans to promote the MyinTuition calculator prominently as it begins outreach in coming weeks to high school juniors who would enter in 2019.

Other schools now using the calculator are Amherst, Babson, Boston, Bowdoin, Carleton, Colby, Colorado, Dartmouth, Davidson, Grinnell, Hamilton, Middlebury, Mount Holyoke, Pomona, St. Olaf, Skidmore, Smith, Vassar and Williams colleges; Brown, Columbia, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Rice, Wesleyan and Washington and Lee universities; and the universities of Rochester and Virginia. U-Va., the only public institution on the list, adopted the calculator in 2015.

Matt Proto, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Colby, said he hopes the new calculator will help families navigate what can be a confusing market. Too often, he said, families give up on private colleges because they don’t look past the sticker price. With the new tool, Proto said, “They can see that this education actually is within reach — and it may be more affordable than the schools they are considering.”