Four in 10 students say they don't know what their tuition payments will be.

Most college applicants said they would attend a school even if tuition was well out of their price range, and just a fraction of college hopefuls use an online tuition calculator before they commit to an institution, according to a new national survey.

The survey, conducted and published by the College Board and the Art and Science Group, included responses from high school seniors in the winter of their final year before college–called early prospects–and seniors six months later, as they prepare for high school graduation. The survey dubs these respondents as late prospects.

About two-thirds of late prospects–ready to decide on a college to attend the following fall–said they would struggle to afford tuition, but would attend the school because it offered “strong academics in my field of interest,” “a prestigious reputation,” and an “active, vibrant social life,” among other attributes.

“Even at this late date in the college admissions cycle, an overwhelming majority of students surveyed were willing to pay more for an institution they viewed as offering something they highly valued and perceived to be worth the higher price they would have to pay,” the survey said.

Web-based tuition calculators–which estimate monthly payments according to tuition and loans used by the student–went unused by many of the 1,067 students who responded to the College Board survey.

Twelve percent of early college prospects had used an online tuition calculator, according to the survey, and 16 percent of late prospects had used the tool.

The survey suggested that the sparing use of online calculators means the tools “are not as widely available or accessible as they might be or that parents and students simply are not aware of them or find calculators too complicated or time-consuming to use.”

College Board has a web-based tuition calculator, and student aid site FinAid.org has a comprehensive calculator that accounts for a range of pertinent factors. Institutions such as the University of Texas and Penn State University also have their own calculators available for prospective students.

Ignoring online tuition calculators left many applicants and their parents in the dark as to what their tuition bill would be.

Forty percent said they had “no idea” how much they would pay for monthly tuition, suggesting that “students and their families are not using the tools and resources available to them to calculate and understand … financial implications for them in terms of financing a college education.”

Maya Frost, author of The Global Student, a book advocating for students to seek a quality, inexpensive education, said college applicants often make the mistake of choosing a campus based on a reputation that might catch the eye of an employer after graduation.

“[Students should] use the tools available to gain a clearer understanding of the true costs, and never assume that a higher price tag will guarantee a higher salary,” Frost said. “Too many students shoot for out-of-price-range schools with the idea that the loans will make it magically affordable.”

A well-known university’s name on a resume might curry the favor of some employers, Frost said, but by attending pricey institutions, students run the risk of facing a high student loan bills without a job directly after college–a common predicament in the country’s down economy.

“Most employers are looking for real skills, raw talent, persistence, and a lack of that dreaded sense of entitlement,” she said. “We tend to equate high price with exceptional value even when we know that a product or service might not live up to its hype, and the same is true in higher education. … It often backfires, leaving students in a mountain of debt–and without that plum job to pay it off.”


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