As we reported last week, calculating college costs can be utterly baffling. Phillip B. Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley College, argues that every school should offer a simplified financial aid calculator — or risk losing talented low-income prospects.  Here’s his column response to our story last week:

Students and their parents contemplating college need to have a clear understanding of what college is going to cost them long before they apply if they are going to make wise academic and financial decisions. Sticker prices upwards of $60,000 are chilling. Even upper-middle class students are often eligible for financial aid, but figuring out the actual cost to you can be a challenge. As someone who has developed expertise in understanding college costs, both as an economist and as a father of two college-age children, here’s how I would proceed. This discussion is best-suited for students thinking about selective, private higher educational institutions, which is what I know best.

Where to start

Basic information can be found at government Web sites like the College Navigator, the College Scorecard, or private alternatives like TuitionTracker or BigFuture.  These sites provide average prices paid, after financial aid, for all of a college’s aid recipients and, in some cases, by income level.  Interpreting this information requires caution. For example, each college’s student body is different; those whose students are wealthier, on average, will have students who pay more, even if those schools are quite generous with financial aid for their needy students.  Average prices can be affected by the presence of students with unusual finances. If, for example, one of the students in a school’s lowest income group also comes from a family with significant financial assets, the high price that student pays distorts the average for that income group. These sites are useful for getting a sense of the landscape, but perhaps not for figuring out what college will cost your family.

The next step is to identify schools of interest for you, including factors like geography and selectivity, among others. Visit their financial aid web pages and see what they offer. Many include sample cases, infographics, tables, and other information that provides a better idea of what that college might cost you, including potential loan burdens. But this information is still not specific to you.

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A better way to calculate college costs

If the schools you are considering are anything like Wellesley College — highly selective with a large endowment, but offering no merit aid — you might consider trying our simplified cost calculator. It will provide a ballpark estimate of the cost of attending Wellesley College (including loan and work-study expectations along with grants) based on responses to six basic financial questions. It takes an average of three minutes to complete. Although schools provide independent financial aid offers, costs at comparable schools are likely to be similar, and Wellesley’s calculator is a good starting point.

The next place to go is the government-mandated net price calculator at the colleges on your own list. The calculators may be daunting to complete, but they will give the most precise, individualized estimates. Once you have narrowed down a list, it is time to pull your tax forms from the file cabinet, and plan on spending your Saturday morning (and afternoon?) using one or more of them. Coffee is required.

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The state vs. private college comparison

Finally, I would compare the range of estimates you obtain from this process with what you might expect to pay at state-supported institutions. The FAFSA4caster is a useful tool to use to estimate costs at those schools. You may be surprised when you compare estimates between public and private institutions; private colleges may be cost the same or even less for you.

This process would be greatly simplified if all schools offer a simplified financial aid calculator like Wellesley’s. Getting a more precise estimate will still require biting the bullet and going through the full net price calculator, but this is a process of narrowing down, and a calculator like ours streamlines that process. Every school should have one

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