Comparison Shopping for College Tuition

Judy Hartnett's picture
Monday, February 27, 2012

Colleges and universities have historically obscured their tuition costs in a way that makes comparative shopping virtually impossible. And far too little information is available on graduation rates and loan default rates to help students choose wisely.

Congress tried to bring pricing transparency in 2008, when it required all colleges to place “net price calculators” on their Web sites to let students see an approximate cost after grants and scholarships are taken into account. While colleges have created the calculators, there need to be clear guidelines for how to make them accessible and easy to use.

The purpose of the calculator is to let families know long before they apply whether a particular college is within reach financially. Grants at a college with a high sticker price may actually make it less costly than a college with a lower sticker price and less generous financial aid.

Last year, the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonpartisan research and advocacy group, conducted an analysis of net price calculators posted by 16 colleges. The study found wide variation in quality and clarity. Some calculators were prominently placed on the college Web sites and made it easy for prospective applicants to get understandable answers about the net cost of an education. Others were buried deep in the sites and required detailed personal financial information that students would not have readily available.

Still others include invasive and unnecessary questions — like a student’s contact information or religion — that could scare some students away. This needs to change if the devices are to serve their intended purpose.

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