Same Time Last Year—Paying for College: Forms, Good Intel and…Wine

BY  |  Monday, Feb 25, 2013 8:00am

college funding jarAround this time last year, our son was a high school senior with college acceptances rolling in, my husband and I were frantically filling out financial aid forms (and praying), and trying to get a true sense of how much each of the three schools on the top of his list might wind up costing us.

Not the official tuition and room and board and fees. Those are easy to sort out – we just visited the colleges’ websites, clicked on “Tuition and Fees,” then on “in state” or “out of state,” and there was the number. Then, once we regained consciousness, we poured two glasses of wine and permanently banished the word “retirement” from our family vocabulary.

Because that number, no matter the school, was huge.

It was also, we quickly discovered via research and talking to parents of college students, usually without much resemblance to what the bill may eventually be. Too many factors. Too many variables, the guidebooks, websites and friends all said: Your child may earn a merit and/or a needs-based scholarship. A grant. Snag a work study slot. Qualify for (and elect to take on) a federal student loan (or two or 16). Wind up in a triple or quad (translation: less expensive) dorm room. Get into the honors college.

Any combination of these could mean our actual cost – the amount that would appear on the bottom line of our bursar bill – might vary, from a few hundred to tens of thousands less. This is why a few years ago colleges were made to install online price calculators on their websites. Plug in some financial information, and you get an estimate of how much you might pay.

So we did that, for his top three schools (wine at the ready).

One told us our eventual cost would be the full freight (pour please). Another flashed a number $15,000 below sticker price (shall we switch to champagne?). The third gave a figure so low we didn’t believe it.

Soon we got the financial aid offer for his dream school. He had earned a couple of small scholarships and grants from the college, did not get a work study job or into the honors college, did get the highest possible federal grant, and qualified for a relatively small loan. When the actual bursar’s bill arrived, it was far different from what that own school’s online price calculator said it might be – the one that said we’d pay full freight. We didn’t.

I couldn’t understand why we weren’t able to get a better estimate until earlier this week when the White House debuted their new College Affordability and Transparency Center. There’s a ton of useful information here, but what interested me most was the Scorecard function, which quickly generates a cost that seems to come with better precision – and without having to input any of your personal or financial information. You simply name the college and the campus and then get a figure that reflects what a typical family usually pays out of their own pocket, at that particular school and campus.

For fun, I plugged in the name of my son’s current college and the campus. That’s it – no personal financial data. The number that showed up – the amount the typical family can expect to pay at that college on that particular campus – was within $150 of what we have actually paid out of our own pocket for his first year.

Amazing, when you consider that even with specific financial data, the school’s own online calculator didn’t come anywhere near this figure – in fact, it was so much higher we tried to dissuade him from enrolling. Why? Because he’d chosen a state college in another state, known for charging like a private university and being stingy with aid to out of state students.

But you know how it is. The first born. The dream college. The wine.

I wonder, if we had had the use of the White House’s Scorecard site, if our deliberations might have been less stressful. I wonder why the colleges can’t utilize the same algorithms that the WH site does and give a more accurate typical picture.

I wonder too if it was just a coincidence, that our bill matched the WH Scorecard’s projection.

But I don’t wonder about the site’s value. It seems to be the only place to get such a quick, seemingly accurate projection without handing over personal information.

Folks, I am here to tell you that when you are wading through the swill that is the college funding and financial aid process (I haven’t by the way even touched here on the gorilla known as the FAFSA universal aid form, except to say: more wine will be involved), anything that offers data and information you can’t easily get anywhere else, and that might actually be more useful in making college funding decisions – is a good thing.

And I’m kind of annoyed at those who are bashing the initiative as a waste of taxpayer dollars, seemingly mostly because it’s an Obama idea. As this Star Ledger article explains, it’s one of very few, if not the only place, to get an accurate idea of what a typical family’s bottom line might be not just for the college overall, but for the specific campus as well. And, it’s a gargantuan improvement over the poorly understood (perhaps even laughable) “estimated family contribution” (EFC) you get from the FAFSA site.

Oh we tried that calculation too: Our EFC was $400. Which was off only by about twenty grand.

Please pass the wine.

Photo: Flickr


  1. POSTED BY Edward Hotel  |  February 25, 2013 @ 11:51 am

    OK, get annoyed at me! I’m bashing the “Government” because we are paying full list price at a prestigious University, we do not qualify for anything. We are “Democrat defined” millionaires $250,000 and do not qualify for loans or grants.

    So we are paying full price, and having tax dollars go to help pay for others to go to school. It is rater annoying to be paying $55,000 and be sitting next to someone paying $15,000.

  2. POSTED BY idratherbeat63  |  February 25, 2013 @ 5:53 pm

    Edward Hotel has a good point. There is something fundamentally wrong with how higher education is funded. Rather than funding students individually according to merit and need, we should be funding and promoting specific higher education programs in a more equitable way with more equitable pricing.

    The “College Scorecard” is a step in the right direction.

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