As potential students navigate the college admissions process, one key element stands out: college cost.
Students need to determine how much money they will need to attend college. Specifically, they need to know how much money it will cost to attend any given college on their list rather than just an average price.
Unfortunately, this can be difficult to determine.
That’s because the out-of-pocket cost of college for each individual is dependent on many factors:
- In-state vs out-of-state tuition pricing
- On-campus housing vs off-campus housing vs living at home
- Students as dependents or independents
- Total financial aid awards
- Fixed costs (tuition, fees, etc.) vs variable costs (transportation, books, personal items, etc.)
- Specific programming costs
Despite these factors, there are ways to estimate the costs associated with attending your institution. Here are five tools that can help.
#1: Net Price Calculator
Every college that participates in the federal financial aid program is required to have a net price calculator on their website.
A net price calculator helps students determine how much they will pay to attend the school after subtracting scholarships and grants – guaranteed financial aid that does not have to be repaid.
Studies show, however, that not all Net Price Calculators are accurate. A University of Pennsylvania study1 found that some net calculators:
- Are not easy to locate
- Do not use the federal definition of “net price”
- Did not have working links
- Don’t include all costs
- Use out-of-date data
- Don’t ask enough questions to determine a student’s circumstances (GPA, income, dependent vs independent, etc.)
To be of value, make sure that your net cost calculator provides accurate estimates of the cost of attending your institution.
#2: College Aid Pro
This tool helps students determine their eligibility for grants and scholarships.
College Aid Pro has a free version allowing students to determine financial aid eligibility for up to three colleges. It also projects tuition cost increases.
Students using College Aid Pro will need to have the following on hand:
- Test scores (SAT, ACT, etc)
- Parent income (Personal income if independent)
- Parent assets (Personal assets if independent)
#3: Financial Wellness Course
iGrad has created a course used by NYU titled “Understanding the Cost of Financing College2.” Participating in this course can help students make good decisions about choosing a school and using financial aid.
- Direct and indirect costs associated with college
- How to understand a financial aid award letter
- The difference between grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study
- Advantages and disadvantages of student loans
- To compare colleges based on value
- Student loan repayment
Edmit allows students to compare the net cost of several schools. After inputting GPA, test scores, and a financial profile, Edmit provides an estimate per school of:
- Overall cost
- Out-of-pocket cost
- Loan amount needed to attend
- Monthly loan payments after graduation
This is similar to the Net Cost calculators provided by each school but allows students to see several schools at one time in the same format.
Additionally, it focuses on student loan debt, helping families determine the cost-benefit analysis of obtaining an education at each institution.
#5: Award Letter Analyzer
Once the award letters start coming in, students will need to compare awards to determine the best deal. However, award letters are notoriously difficult to understand.
For example, New America found that of the 455 colleges that offered unsubsidized student loans, there were 136 unique terms to describe that loan, including 24 that didn’t mention the word loan3.
Award letters also did not:
- Provide complete cost of attending the school
- Differentiate aid offered
- Separate unsubsidized parent loans from other financial aid
- Explain how work-study differed from grants, scholarships, and loans
- Provide students with an out-of-pocket cost
- Explain how to accept or deny the award
To combat this, iGrad has created an Award Letter Analyzer4.
Students just need to input the information found in their award letters and this tool will help them figure out how much each college costs and which ones are affordable.
Although these tools only provide estimates, students – and their families – can learn a lot about the costs associated with individual colleges and how to make appropriate decisions based on these costs.
In fact, the best thing students can do to find the best college choice is to educate themselves about these financial matters and improve their financial wellness.
1 - https://www.gse.upenn.edu/pdf/ahead/Questioning_the_Calculations.pdf
2 - https://nyu.igrad.com/courses/understanding-the-cost-of-financing-college
3 - https://www.newamerica.org/education-policy/policy-papers/decoding-cost-college/
4 - https://nyu.igrad.com/award-letter