Quick College Cost Calculating

With the sky-high costs associated with college these days, it makes sense to look before you leap, so to speak. Across the many years that I have been advising students and their families about college matters, the one element that makes me feel the most regret is encountering their buyer’s remorse.

By that, I mean seeing students (and families) regretting their decision about which college to attend. Naturally, the students’ decisions should be paramount, but many times parental circumstances — and attitudes — come into the picture when it comes to enrollment decisions.

For example, consider the situation of a student who has for years targeted a certain “prestigious” (whatever that means) college or small group (as in Ivy League) schools. After receiving all his or her admission decisions, s/he finds that the coveted school, or at least one of that select group, has offered admission. The years of obsessive focus on that/those particular school(s) then blinds the student, and possibly the family, to the realities of actual cost since they have been focused on a certain college direction. Finally, an eventual enrollment/matriculation decision follows with little regard being given to cost consequences.

Many times, the result of this strongly emotional rather than rationale decision manifests itself in high student loan debt, one of the key issues I have preached about here. I can understand the gravitational pull of being admitted to a so-called “dream” school, but common sense should prevail. The primary questions that need to be answered are: “Can I, as a student, afford this school?” along with: “Can we, as a family, afford this school for our child?”

Answers to those questions can generally be answered by using the various net-price calculators offered by many colleges. The financial aid pages of their Web sites feature those tools. However, some new news regarding discovering college costs in advance came out this week. Here’s some of my highlighted information about that from The Washington Post‘s Nick Anderson:

These 31 colleges — including Yale — are now using a fast and easy financial aid calculator

When his two sons were growing up, a college professor named Phillip Levine found himself 10 years ago asking a question on the minds of parents perennially worried about the price of higher education: Would they qualify for financial aid?

Levine, a Wellesley College economist, was frustrated to learn there were no easy answers beyond the scary sticker prices and pledges from certain colleges that they would meet the need of students they admit.

“How can you expect people to make educated decisions about the right thing to do when they have absolutely no idea what the cost is?” Levine said. “It’s crazy.”

So Levine set out to build a tool that would provide some quick and reliable answers. On Wednesday, Yale University and 15 other schools announced that they would use a version of his calculator now known as MyinTuition. (Get it?) That brought the total involved in his nonprofit initiative to 31, including Wellesley, which in 2013 became the first to use Levine’s calculator.

Levine is quick to point out that his calculators are meant to complement, not replace, the “net price calculators” that colleges have been required to post online since 2011. But the net price calculators are often cumbersome. Levine and other experts say many users, facing a slew of complicated questions about tax returns, assets and home equity, fail to take advantage of them.

Levine’s tool aims to give families a fast and effective answer to the question of whether they could afford a given school at a time when listed prices — counting tuition, fees, housing, meals and other expenses — for private colleges can top $70,000 a year.

It asks users a series of easy-to-follow questions about citizenship status, living situation, family income, home value, mortgage balance, cash on hand, retirement plans and other investments. It also asks whether any siblings are in college. Then, using the college’s aid policies, the calculator produces an instant estimate of what the student and family might expect to pay out of pocket and what might be provided as grants, loans and work-study. The whole exercise is meant to take about three minutes.

Take a family of four with income of $70,000 a year, cash of $5,000, non-retirement investments of $25,000, and home equity of $25,000. If the sibling is not in college, the estimated expected family contribution for Wellesley would be $5,000 to $15,500 a year. If the sibling is in college, the family’s contribution range for the women’s college would be $3,000 to $9,300 a year. In addition, the calculator tells this prospective student that she would be expected to borrow $1,800 a year and earn $2,100 through a work-study program. The rest of the college’s $68,000 annual expense would be covered by grants and scholarships. …

… Other schools now using the calculator are Amherst, Babson, Boston, Bowdoin, Carleton, Colby, Colorado, Dartmouth, Davidson, Grinnell, Hamilton, Middlebury, Mount Holyoke, Pomona, St. Olaf, Skidmore, Smith, Vassar and Williams colleges; Brown, Columbia, Duke, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Rice, Wesleyan and Washington and Lee universities; and the universities of Rochester and Virginia. U-Va., the only public institution on the list, adopted the calculator in 2015.

Matt Proto, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Colby, said he hopes the new calculator will help families navigate what can be a confusing market. Too often, he said, families give up on private colleges because they don’t look past the sticker price. With the new tool, Proto said, “They can see that this education actually is within reach — and it may be more affordable than the schools they are considering.”

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Anderson’s headline specifically calls out Yale. That “Big Three” Ivy school gets a promo about its new calculator in the Yale Daily News:

Yale unveiled a new service on Wednesday that will allow prospective applicants to easily calculate how much financial aid they might be entitled to if they enroll as undergraduates.

MyinTuition, a service used by 29 other American universities, asks students to submit information about their families’ finances in order to produce low, best and high estimates of what portion of the total sticker price their families would likely have to pay. The service will complement the more in-depth net price calculator that Yale has offered for more than five years. Unlike the net price calculator, which requires detailed information from sources like tax returns and checking accounts, MyinTuition asks only six simple questions and takes about three minutes to complete, according to the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

“MyinTuition is a real game-changer for our outreach efforts,” Director of Undergraduate Financial Aid Scott Wallace-Juedes said. “The tool cuts through the jargon and gives families exactly what they need to feel comfortable when considering a college. A family can get an estimate in just a few minutes without any paperwork.” …

…  “Our extraordinary financial aid policies are the centerpiece of a commitment toward socioeconomic mobility and positive social change,” Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Jeremiah Quinlan said. “But scholarships alone don’t produce the kind of change we seek. We have a responsibility to help every high-achieving student in America understand that a Yale education is affordable. I believe these efforts will ultimately strengthen and diversify the Yale student body and will help make the next generation of leaders and scholars as diverse as our country.”

Director of Outreach and Communications Mark Dunn added that Yale’s own analyses and national research reveal that there are “thousands of high-achieving students from lower- and middle-income families” who do not consider applying to Yale and other colleges because they are not aware of financial aid opportunities. Dunn said MyinTuition is “a powerful way to reduce the anxiety that prevents some students from realizing their potential.” …

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So, you should be able to see that this new tool can be a quite helpful adjunct to your college decision-making process. Taking on a huge amount of student loan debt is not the way to go. Many graduating college students, both undergraduate and graduate, have debt that may not be able to be paid back during their working lifetimes. This enormous burden can affect credit ratings, home purchases, and other unanticipated areas that can make life frustratingly oppressive.

Buyer’s remorse is real. Don’t allow it to become part of your future. Use these cost-projection tools to make informed decisions about college choices.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles at College Confidential.