How to find the ‘real’ price of college

Students shouldn't take tuition costs at face value, experts say.

Scouring the web for college tuition estimates may no longer give students and their parents an acute case of sticker shock.

Two years after the U.S. Education Department (ED) told colleges and universities that their websites would have to include a net-price calculator by October 2011, a new site called has come out with a tool that shows students what they’ll have to pay out of pocket to attend college.

Accounting for financial aid eligibility, grade point average, and standardized test scores, for example, can knock thousands off the “sticker price” of tuition posted on a university’s website. Sometimes, that sticker price can be cut in half – and maybe more.

Providing an accurate tuition estimate to the web-searching public could encourage high school students to apply to campuses with seemingly sky-high tuition rates, said Scott Anderson, president and cofounder of edLaunchPad, which made its debut in November.

More realistic cost projections would also be a relief for parents who are overwhelmed by the prospect of saving $50,000 for their child to earn a college degree, he said.

“You look around and you get these astronomical numbers that really dissuade people from wanting to tackle the issue early on and save,” said Anderson, a financial planner for 12 years before starting eduLaunchPad. “These numbers just seem mind boggling to a person starting a family, so they decide many times just not to save.”

Online net-cost tools have helped debunk persistent myths about college applications, tuition, and fees. For instance, private colleges aren’t always more expensive than state schools.

In fact, Anderson said a low-income student with stellar high school grades could pay as little as half as much at a private campus than he or she would at a public institution.

“It’s like the difference between knowing the sticker price of a car and knowing what your costs will be after rebates, dealer discounts, and your used car’s trade-in value,” he said.

ED officials in 2009 mandated in the Higher Education Opportunity Act that campuses provide readily available net-cost projections on their campus websites. Colleges and universities can use a calculator template released by ED in November 2009, or they can create their own, as long as the tool incorporates data mandated by the federal government.

Some institutions have launched their own net-cost calculators before the federal deadline. Purdue University, Yale, Princeton, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are among high-profile schools with their own calculator.

An accurate net-cost calculator can also prove that students who come from middle or high income homes can still qualify for grants and other assistance. Anderson said he once helped a student slash her college costs even though her father made more than $200,000 annually.

The student’s father was paying tuition for two other daughters attending college, so his third daughter received need-based tuition assistance.

“Not everyone who makes that much will get that perk, but a lot of people will,” Anderson said.

Jeremy Hyman, a longtime college educator and co-author of Professors’ Guide: The Secrets of College Success, said simply seeing an estimated tuition price listed on a university’s website can turn students away, sure that they can’t pay $20,000 a year.

“Sometimes they’re so overwhelmed they go straight to community college,” where prices are usually listed by the course, appearing far more manageable, Hyman said. “And that’s really unfortunate in a lot of cases.”

When financial aid is factored into college costs, Hyman said, students are often surprised that they – and their parents – won’t have to break the bank.

“They don’t usually know how much they’ll be on the hook for” before factoring in assistance, he said.

Anderson said his years as a financial planner – often working with parents who began saving for college when their child entered high school – showed that “about 90 percent” of parents “had no idea what to anticipate” about college tuition and fees.

Conducting endless internet searches for college prices and accurate projections, Anderson said, can lead to an information overload that leaves parents and students more confused about tuition costs than before they did any research.

“Seeing too much information is … just as bad as having no information available to you at all,” he said.

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