New College Tuition Estimate Tool Provides Clarity and Confusion

Published on November 14th, 2011

By EMILY FISH & ANNA KELEHER

The College and Career Center has a whole shelf of books about paying for college.

For all the juniors and seniors who are stressing about college choices, visits, and applications, the recently revised Higher Education Oppurtunity Act may make the process just a little bit easier, especially for students interested in financial aid. According to the U.S. Department of Education, the act, which was first passed by Congress last year, requires all colleges that grant federally subsidized student aid to include a Net Cost calculator on their website to help parents and students estimate the cost of tuition for the school.

“Cost is an important factor in deciding where you want to go,” said Alice Gorman, who runs the FLHS College and Career Center. She added that she “think[s] it’s a wonderful tool.”

The Net Cost calculator and similar tools already exist on the websites of some colleges such as Princeton and Williams College. The calculators are more likely to give users accurate predictions on financial aid than the previously used Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which did not factor in the policies of different schools.

“If it’s accurate enough, it would be great,” said senior Mark Cerulli. As Cerulli pointed out, the Net Price calculator may not be as simple or as clarifying as students might hope. The College Board, as well as the National Center for Education Statistics, has provided an online calculator for colleges’ use, but many colleges and universities have built their own, or added personalized features, making direct comparisons between different college tuition costs difficult.

Additionally, the number provided by the Net Cost calculator cannot factor in the amount of applications the college will receive or the merit of other students applying. The tool could confuse more than it clarifies if parents view the Net Cost calculator’s estimate as final or absolute.

“I’m not sure if [the calculators] would affect my decision at all until I talked to a financial aid counselor,” said Vicki Hastings, FLHS culinary arts teacher and parent to a high school senior as well as two college students. Hastings expressed skepticism at the accuracy of such calculators. She also said that she’d rather consult with actual college representatives.

The Net Cost calculator and the Higher Education Opportunity Act are part of a broader effort stemming from what the Department of Education’s website calls, “President Obama’s commitment to delivering a government that is more open, transparent and accountable to the American people.” Also included in the Higher Education Oppurtunity Act is a requirement for government-issued College Affordability and Transparency Lists, which list college tuition costs as well as the actual amount paid by the average student. The hope, as described by the Department of Education, is for increased “affordability and accessibility” to higher education for all students.

Affordability of college tuition is a rapidly growing problem for students and families in the United States. According to the College Board website,  “public four-year college published tuition and fees between 2001-02 and 2006-07 is higher than any other five  year increase from 1976-77 to the present.” Private four-year colleges have similarly alarming increases.

“I think that at some point it can’t continue to go up the way it is…families just can’t afford it,” said Gorman about the rising tuition costs. The Net Cost Calculator may help prospective students get a better idea of what they will actually be paying, but it won’t help them pay.

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