New online tool reveals a university’s ‘real’ price to students

Tuition Tracker shows prospective students an institution’s ‘net price’

money200How much does college cost? Somewhere between “a heck of a lot” and “not as much as you might think.”

Sure, college is expensive, but a new online tool unveiled last week, Tuition Tracker, is trying to take some of the mystery out of college pricing.

“I’ve often wondered why (colleges) have a sticker price and why colleges don’t simply charge a net price and stop acting like an airline or a used car salesman,” said Jon Marcus, higher education editor at The Hechinger Report and one of the Tuition Tracker’s producers.

The college bill starts with a sticker price. That sticker price for a year of undergraduate education includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and other personal expenses.

For some elite private schools, that number is eye-popping.

For example, Duke University will charge undergraduates about $60,500 next year. At Wake Forest University, it will be $62,538.

Public universities charge much less for their in-state students because they get state subsidies. For instance, UNCG and N.C. A&T have a sticker price of roughly $18,000 a year.

But, said Steve Brooks, executive director of the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority, which administers the state’s financial aid programs: “Nobody pays the full cost of college at any institution.”

(Next page: What students really pay)

What students really pay is the net price, which is much lower than the sticker price. Federal, state and institutional grants can cut thousands—and sometimes tens of thousands—of dollars off the sticker price.

Students also have several ways to cover the rest of their college bill. Most financial aid packages include a mix of grants, low-interest loans and work-study programs. Some students get private or employer scholarships. Parents can take out their own loans or use personal savings, college savings accounts, and tax credits and deductions.

Families who want to send their children to college should plan ahead, said Pat Fehlig, a certified college planner in Greensboro.

College prices have gone up fivefold since 1985 and continue to rise by about 4 percent a year, Fehlig said.

One piece of advice Fehlig gives her clients: Fill out the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Colleges use the FAFSA to determine how much a family can afford to pay, and sometimes there’s college aid money in unexpected places.

“There are some families who don’t fill out the FAFSA,” Fehlig said. “Often times they leave money on the table…You have nothing to lose. It’s free.”

Low-income students generally get more financial help—and pay less for college—than wealthier students. But the Tuition Tracker project found that costs are rising faster for lower-income families as more financial aid benefits flow up the income ladder, not down.

The project found that some colleges are steering more financial aid money toward wealthier students, who often bring in high grades and test scores that boost a school’s national rankings. Wealthier families also benefit more from tax breaks and federal work-study programs.

(The trend of rising prices hit this state the hardest)

The trend of fast-rising prices for low-income families was especially pronounced in North Carolina, according to the project.

From 2008 to 2011, the four years examined by Tuition Tracker, wealthier students heading to UNC schools saw their out-of-pocket costs increase by 16 percent to nearly $17,500. For poor families, the cost jumped by more than 80 percent to nearly $7,000. State cuts to higher education and corresponding tuition hikes contributed to the jump.

So did the demise of N.C. EARN, a scholarship program that gave $4,000 per year to the state’s neediest students. That program started in 2008—the first year of Tuition Tracker’s data—and died out the next year, a victim of sweeping state budget cuts in the wake of the national financial meltdown.

“It was a real blow to lose this source of funding,” said Deborah Tollefson, UNCG’s director of financial aid, “and we have not recovered.”

The trend toward faster-rising prices for low-income students isn’t true at all North Carolina universities.

In 2012, the legislature repealed a tuition grant of $1,800 that went to all North Carolina students who went to in-state private colleges. The state grant that replaced it will go only to low-income students. Brooks said that could reduce the net price for less-affluent families in the future.

At Wake Forest, the net price for low-income students fell about $2,000 per year over the time measured by Tuition Tracker. A university spokeswoman said Wake Forest nearly doubled the amount of institutional financial aid during the past five years. The school also caps loan amounts at $4,000 per year for low-income families and meets the rest of their financial need through grants and work-study.

©2014 the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.). Visit the News & Record (Greensboro, N.C.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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