New online app calculates true college costs

A new online app called College Abacus is making it easier for students and their families to get estimates in advance of how much financial aid colleges and universities will give so that they can compare schools for costs, the Star-Telegram reports.

It comes at an opportune time, since the shutdown of many government programs because of the political standoff over the federal budget has disabled College Navigator, a tool also designed to help families figure out college costs and operated by the Department of Education.

Until about two years ago, financial aid was a mystery until a student got a college acceptance letter and a financial aid package. Change began in 2011, when the federal government required schools to offer online net price calculators, which compute a school’s full cost of attendance, minus estimated scholarships, based on family income and other information that individuals enter.

College Abacus is a free, one-stop shop. It taps the net price calculators at three schools a student selects. Then, based on personal information entered once into College Abacus, the site retrieves the estimates. More schools can be entered, three at a time.

The federal government’s College Navigator website offers a rougher estimate. For each school, it will give estimated net prices for several income levels.

“Even if the government has stopped working, parents still need to find financial aid for their students to go to college,” said College Abacus co-founder Abigail Seldin.

And finding out in advance which schools are likely to be affordable can bring peace to households in the spring, when most full-time students get their college decisions, Seldin said. It also can help reduce student debt.