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Paying for College

How Much Does College Really Cost?

New tools help you get beyond the sticker price.

When it comes to predicting how much you’ll pay for college, you might as well consult your local fortuneteller or learn to read tea leaves. College promotional booklets publish sticker prices, which most students don’t pay. Financial aid letters rarely spell out how aid will change over four years or translate into monthly loan payments after graduation. Meanwhile, the price of college keeps rising, and student-loan default rates remain worrisome. To address the challenge of finding an affordable college education, politicians and educators are launching tools to shed light on the murky process.

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One of the newest is the Department of Education’s College Scorecard . The Scorecard is a sleek, interactive site where you can search by state, school size and campus setting, among other criteria, to find potential schools.

See Our Slide Show: 10 Best Public Colleges With Lowest Debt at Graduation

Each college has its own page with five measurements of affordability and quality, including net cost (after grants and scholarships), graduation rate, loan-default rate and median amount borrowed. (The fifth measure, data on post-college employment, is slated to be added. Arkansas, Tennessee and Virginia already provide employment inform­ation for their grads.) A graphics-rich design is a student-friendly improvement over previous text-heavy federal tools. Meters and charts show how each school compares with its peers, and embedded links lead to net-price calculators on each school’s Web site.

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College administrators are also trying to make the cost of attendance more transparent. The University of Dayton, for example, has announced that next year’s incoming freshmen will receive a two-page “prospectus” detailing their billable expenses over four years, plus a pledge that aid will increase in line with tuition. In a pilot program launched this school year, the State University of New York system has adopted the standardized financial aid shopping sheet, developed by the Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and beefed up loan-counseling services at six campuses.

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Price transparency is an increasingly popular notion in higher-ed circles, but experts say the current suite of tools needs tweaking before students get a truly clear picture. For instance, loan-default rates on the College Scorecard don’t mean much without knowing the percentage of students who borrow. And more schools would have to adopt Dayton’s prospectus model for it to become useful in weighing one offer against another. For now, the financial aid shopping sheet, which has been adopted by more than 600 schools nationwide, will go a long way toward helping students make apples-to-apples comparisons.

Another challenge for guidance counselors and parents is getting students to pay more attention to costs early on. Only 35% of prospective students used an online net-price calculator during their college search, reports a 2012 College Board study.

Kiplinger’s has always focused on value as well as quality when evaluating colleges, using data such as financial aid, graduation rates and average debt upon graduation to determine our college rankings.

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