A recent move by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Postsecondary Education will soon relieve many of the financial mysteries involved in the college search. Under the Higher Education Act of 2008, all higher education institutions are required to post a net-price calculator on their Web site by October 2011.
The calculator will consider what grant aid each student is eligible for and compare it to the institution's sticker price. The calculator is expected not only to help college-bound students realistically look at what schools are available to them, but to encourage students who may not necessarily pursue college to consider their options. All colleges partaking in Title IV student financial aid programs—an overwhelming majority of postsecondary schools—are required to participate.
"There are misperceptions and myths," says Robert Bardwell, school counselor at Monson (Mass.) High School and former board member of the American School Counselor Association. "Students think they can't afford it, so why bother applying? You never know what aid is available, so students shouldn't let cost necessarily dictate where they apply."
According to Bardwell, approximately 180,000 students each year are qualified for college and don't apply.
Melissa Clinedinst, assistant director of research for the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), hopes the net-price calculator will help to redirect the national discussion about the cost of colleges. "Despite the information out there, there are many families that still don't understand that most students don't pay the scary sticker price for college," she says.
The ultimate success of the calculator, says Clinedinst, depends on how effectively students use it, but she hopes it will serve as a valuable tool for families trying to plan ahead for college.