A Calculated Move to Weigh College Costs

Kelli Bones remembers her first reaction when she learned that a certain private college in Minnesota would cost $40,000 a year to attend.

"It was like, ‘Holy, Moly,’ " Bones, 19, recalls. "It was a huge number. But I remember all the admission counselors saying, ‘Look at our financial aid, our scholarships we offer. Don’t just focus on the initial price tag.’ "

That wise advice now has a partner in the battle against higher education sticker shock – a federal mandate that goes into effect Oct. 29 requiring colleges and universities to provide a "net price calculator" on their websites.

Though aspects of it give high school counselors and college financial aid directors pause, the online tool is supposed to help prospective students figure out how much financial aid and scholarships to expect and how much they actually will pay out of pocket.

The federal government is requiring institutions with access to federal grants, loans and other financial aid to provide the calculator.

"I think something like that would have been really valuable when I was looking for colleges," said Bones, who didn’t end up at the Minnesota school but is a sophomore now at the University of Sioux Falls. "Sometimes it’s hard to get straight answers from people. A calculator maybe could have even narrowed down where I went to visit."

The calculator is supposed to help students and their parents figure their out-of-pocket costs for tuition, fees, books, room and board based on such standard inputs as family size and savings. The tool then estimates the prospective student’s financial aid, subtracts that amount from a college’s list price, then arrives at the net cost.

"I see it as a benefit for us," said Brett Bradfield, provost at the University of Sioux Falls. "One of the things we battle … is that people sometimes jump to the conclusion that we’re prohibitively expensive and no way in the world they can afford us."

Still, others see some bugs to be worked out in the process. Matt Meyers, a counselor at Lincoln High School, worries that one errant keystroke easily could alter a student’s perception of whether they can afford a school.

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