Published: Sunday, February 05, 2012

Sheryl Harris, The Plain Dealer 

CLEVELAND Ohio -- Parents planning to send a child off to college may experience a bit of sticker shock.
Students at four-year colleges nationwide paid an average $21,600 for the 2010-2011 academic year – roughly 2½ times more than their parents might have spent when they were in school.
Federal and state governments and universities continue to grapple with soaring tuition, but in the meantime, families can find practical tools – some new – for understanding and corralling college costs.
One of those is the net price calculator, which the U.S. Department of Education ordered colleges to post on their websites last October. The calculators give students a ballpark estimate of what they'll spend to attend a particular school.
"Tuition and fees understate the whole cost of attendance," said Lauren Asher of The Institute for College Access and Success. "The full cost of attendance is tuition and fees, housing and food, books and supplies, transportation, and miscellaneous."
Net price is the cost of attending a school (tuition, board, the works) minus aid that similar students received in the previous year. Similarities are based on things like test scores and family income.
The calculators have quirks, but as Asher puts it, they can give students a better and earlier estimate of what they'll need to save, borrow or earn to attend a particular school.
"It might show you your dream school is more affordable than you thought, or less," Asher said. "Or that the school you assumed was cheaper because of the sticker price actually isn't."
Another useful tool is the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet that the Department of Education and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau are collaborating on. Their goal is to make financial aid letters – the offers schools send after a student is accepted – easier to read. Right now schools use different terms to describe the same things, which makes it tough for families to compare offers. And some schools don't clearly distinguish between gift aid and loans.
"Schools lump them together," said Asher. "You think you have this great big aid package and zero cost at the end, and in fact, what you're really looking at is $20-30,000 in loans, plus some work-study assumptions."
Although the shopping sheet is still in the draft stage, families can use it as a roadmap to make sure they ask schools the right questions about financial aid offers.
On the state level, students looking to save money may consider starting at less expensive community colleges to earn credits they can later transfer to one of the state's public four-year colleges.
"It counts toward your degree, so you don't lose time, you don't lose money," said Kim Norris, spokeswoman for the Ohio Board of Regents. Students planning to switch should check with both schools to make sure credits will transfer. (Or, try the Regents' clunky credit transfer site.
Also in the category of saving money by saving time, by year's end, the state's public universities will begin rolling out three-year bachelor's degrees as an option in certain programs.
And although it's too late for 2012 seniors, Norris notes that high school students can slice college costs significantly by taking advanced placement or community college classes in high school to earn college credit – at no cost to students.
Experts shared these tips, tools and strategies for prospective freshmen:
Fill out the FAFSA
Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a tedious chore. The form is long. It's nosy. But, financial aid experts say, it is vital.
Students can qualify for low-cost federal student loans regardless of their income -- but only if they first fill this form. Plus, many schools use the FAFSA as a jumping-off point for awarding school-based aid.

Use net price calculators

These online calculators can give students a good estimate of how much it will cost them to attend a particular school before they spend money to apply.

Students won't know the exact price until they're accepted and get a financial aid letter from the school, but the calculators provide an early reality check. Calculators are still being tweaked, and some schools hide them.

  • See TICAS' tips for finding and using net price calculators

Understand financial aid letters

Students won't know exactly how much it will cost them to attend a school until they're accepted and get a financial aid letter from a college.

Use the draft Financial Aid Shopping Sheet as a guide for breaking down the information and comparing aid offers.

  • Find's helpful guide to decoding financial aid letters

Target your borrowing

Students should always exhaust their federal student loan options before taking out private student loans, which are more expensive and less flexible for borrowers who run into trouble.

Currently, undergraduate students can borrow between $5,000 and $12,500 a year in federal student loans, depending on various factors. Interest rates are reset every July.

Asher encourages parents to consider federal fixed-rate PLUS loans before a student takes on a private loan.

On any loan, borrowers should understand the interest rate, whether it's fixed or variable, whether interest accrues while the borrower is in school, what the balance and loan payment will be when the student graduates, when payments start and under what circumstances the payment could increase.

Students loans usually don't have to be repaid until graduation, but if interest accrues while the student is in school, borrowers can hold down the balance by making even a few payments before graduation.

Co-signers should understand they can be held liable for repaying the loan if the borrower fails to make payments.

  • Find important information on federal student loans (including eligibility limits and parent loans) and how they differ from private loans from the U.S. Department of Education.
  • Get advice for borrowers from TICAS' Project on Student Debt.
  • Find a student loan repayment calculator.
Hunt down scholarships
National scholarship competitions can be fairly competitive, but you can search scholarships for free at Steer clear of scholarships that require money to apply – they're likely scams. And never give away private information, like your Social Security or bank account number.
Students may have a better shot at winning local scholarships, because there's less competition.
  • In Cuyahoga County, get help finding local scholarships and free one-on-one financial aid counseling at the nonprofit College Now Greater Cleveland. The walk-in resource center helps Cuyahoga County students of any age. The walk-in resource center is at 200 Public Square is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and open on Saturdays by appointment. Call 216-241-5587, Ext. 140.
  • Find similar organizations across Ohio at or contact the Ohio Board of Regents (1-800-233-6734).
Other helpful resources:
  • -- Information from the U.S. Department of Education about paying for college including links to the FAFSA form and information about eligibility. Or call 1-800-433-3243.
  • -- The National Center for Education Statistics site has a database of colleges searchable by price, type, location and area of study.
  • NAFSAA's tips on cutting college costs, being a smart consumer and to loan repayment tips.
  • or 1-800-233-6734  The Ohio Board of Regents' clearinghouse for prospective students with questions about attending or paying for college

Posted in

| Tagged

Some community colleges and for-profit colleges have expressed concerns that their students borrow more than they really need in federal loans. We looked into available data and found no evidence that “over-borrowing” is a problem at either community colleges or for-profit colleges. Read our fact sheets dispelling the “over-borrowing” myth at community colleges and for-profit colleges.  

Posted in

| Tagged

Since Governor Brown released his proposed 2012-13 budget three weeks ago, we’ve delved further into what the proposed Cal Grant cuts would mean for California’s students and families. Our further analysis reveals just how damaging one of the cuts – which would raise the grade point averages needed to qualify for Cal Grants – would be.

The dramatic changes proposed by Governor Brown would lock out more than a third of applicants currently eligible for entitlement grants. These are students who have worked hard and earned the grades that the state has long promised entitled them to participate in California’s primary student aid program. These are also the students, research shows, for whom financial aid may make the biggest difference in terms of helping them persist and succeed in college. As they finally reach the point where they are ready to go to college, many will find their dreams shattered.

Three out of four applicants cut out would be prospective Cal Grant B students, who on average have family incomes well below the poverty line. And the majority of these students go to community colleges, where students receive too little aid and are already less likely to receive state grants.

At a time when the nation needs more college graduates, cutting financial aid for the students who most need it to succeed is penny-wise and pound-foolish. See more details on how this cut would affect California’s students and their families here.

Posted in

| Tagged

Since October 29, 2011, almost all U.S. colleges and universities are required to have “net price calculators” on their websites.  These new online tools can make it much easier for prospective students and their families to look past often scary "sticker prices" and start figuring out which colleges they might be able to afford. Armed with early, individualized estimates of what specific colleges would cost after grants and scholarships, students can discover that their dream school may be more (or less) affordable than they thought - before they have to decide where to apply.

To help spread the word about these new online tools, the Department of Education has launched a College Net Price Calculator Student Video Challenge. High school and college students are invited to produce and submit short videos about why net price calculators are a valuable resource during the college selection process. Submit your entry by January 31 for a chance to win one of three $1,500 cash prizes!

To find out more about net price calculators, visit our new net price calculator resource page, with links to our publications as well as resources from the Department of Education.

Posted in

| Tagged

This afternoon the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges (CCC) endorsed the final report of the California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force, which lays out eight chapters of recommendations to improve student success throughout the community college system. The Board will present the recommendations to the California Legislature by March 2012.

While there is much to like in the Task Force report, we are disappointed by the lack of attention paid to overall college affordability and financial aid.  Our research has shown that CCC students are leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grant aid on the table simply because they don’t apply for aid, even though total costs can exceed $17,000 per year and many students have such low incomes that they can’t contribute any amount towards college costs. We’ve also found that access to federal student loans is worsening in California in particular. Over 200,000 community college students – the largest number in any state – lack access to federal loans because their colleges have pulled out of the program.  These problems are not unique to California, but they are particularly serious in the CCCs.

The issue is simple. Financial aid supports success by providing students with the time they need to attend class and study, without having to work excessive hours to make ends meet or take fewer classes per term to make room for work.  As we detailed in our comments submitted last month, the lack of substantial attention paid by the Task Force to students’ affordability challenges is a major oversight, and one that we hope will be rectified in the next phase of work.

Posted in

| Tagged

Statement of Debbie Cochrane Program Director, The Institute for College Access & Success  

We are saddened to see more than $300 million in Cal Grant cuts in the 2012-13 budget proposal released by California Governor Jerry Brown earlier today. Cal Grants are a crucial lifeline for hundreds of thousands of California students who couldn’t afford to attend or complete college without them.

Some of these cuts take a common sense approach to increasing accountability for all types of schools and preserving affordability at the state’s public colleges. For instance, prohibiting state grant dollars from subsidizing students’ attendance at colleges where more than one in four student loan borrowers default on their loans is smart policy in any budget climate. Also, the Governor’s proposal would maintain maximum award levels at all public colleges, where the vast majority of students in the state are enrolled.

However, some of the cuts would fundamentally transform the program from a true engine of opportunity for students who need a hand to a reward for those already much more likely to attend and complete college.  In particular, the Governor would dramatically increase the required grade point average for Cal Grant B awards from 2.0 to 2.75. These grants go primarily to low-income students at community colleges. This change would pull the rug out from under the underrepresented students whose college success is central to our state’s economic recovery. This is a dramatic cut to student eligibility, and one that would happen so suddenly that students who have long counted on a Cal Grant would instead find themselves empty handed.

We will continue to analyze the effects of these and other Cal Grant proposals on students as budget negotiations continue in the coming months.

Posted in

| Tagged

To help students better understand how much each college would actually cost them, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CPFB) and the U.S. Department of Education (Department) have developed a Know Before You Owe financial aid shopping sheet. This draft form takes an important step toward helping students and their families make more informed decisions about how to pay for college and which college to attend. As President Obama remarked in Ohio earlier this week, “You don’t want to owe and then know.”

We recently submitted comments on the draft financial aid shopping sheet, pointing out the most critical elements to include (such as the full cost of attendance and net price) and providing recommendations to make the form even more helpful to students. For example, we emphasize the need to avoid appearing to endorse risky borrowing through private student loans.

We encourage you to submit your own comments on the CFPB’s “Know Before You Owe” webpage. Tell the Department and CFPB what information you wish you had known before deciding where to go to college and how to pay for it. Your feedback is valuable!

Posted in

| Tagged

At a time when college students are graduating with record amounts of debt and facing the highest unemployment rate in recent history, it is not surprising that the national survey of young adults (18-34 years old) released today found strong bipartisan opposition to charging students with financial need interest on their federal loans while they are still in school.

Yet this is exactly what House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently proposed, and some have speculated that the so-called Supercommittee may be considering this as a way to reduce the deficit.  However, this proposal would simply shift the debt burden from the federal government to young people and adults working to get the education and training they need to compete in today’s economy.

Removing the interest subsidy on federal Stafford loans for undergraduates with financial need would increase the cost of college by thousands of dollars at the same time that the interest rate on these loans is scheduled to double from 3.4% to 6.8%, further increasing student debt burdens.

Just how much more would eliminating the in-school interest subsidy cost students who take out the maximum subsidized student loan amount and graduate in six years?

  • The scheduled doubling of the interest rate alone will cost them $4,600 more if they repay over 10 years and $10,400 more if they repay over 20 years.
  • The doubling of the interest rate combined with the elimination of the in-school interest subsidy would cost them $6,250 more when they start repayment (after the six-month grace period), $13,250 more over 10 years, and $21,850 more over a 20-year repayment period.

Rather than entirely eliminating the in-school interest subsidy on subsidized student loans and directing the savings to deficit reduction, the Senate FY2012 Labor-HHS appropriations bill proposes eliminating the interest subsidy during the six-month grace period after a student leaves school and using those savings to fully fund the Pell Grant program.

How much more would eliminating the interest subsidy during the grace period cost students who take out the maximum subsidized student loan amount and graduate in six years, assuming the interest rate doubles, as scheduled, to 6.8%?  Allowing interest to accrue during the grace period would cost these students almost $800 more by the time they enter repayment, $1,100 more if they repay their loan over 10 years, and $1,450 more if they repay their loan over 20 years.

The Senate Appropriators proposed this change in order to fully fund the Pell Grant program, but the House Budget Committee is blocking the Senate from using all the savings to fund Pell Grants next year.  This means that students would face larger debt loads and the Pell Grant program would still have a $900 million budget gap in FY2012.

Posted in

| Tagged

Updated March 19, 2012 Since October 29, 2011, almost all U.S. colleges and universities are required to have “net price calculators” on their websites.  These calculators can make it much easier to start figuring out which colleges you might be able to afford.  They provide early, individualized estimates of what a specific college will cost after grants and scholarships: the net price is what you might have to earn, save, or borrow to go to that school.  These new tools can help you move beyond often scary “sticker prices” and discover that your dream school may be more (or less) affordable than you thought - before you have to decide where to apply. Here’s how you can make the most of net price calculators: Finding them on the college website (they won’t always be in the same place)
  • Some calculators are easier to find than others.  A few are posted on the college’s homepage, but most are in the Financial Aid section, which is sometimes under Admissions. Otherwise, try looking in Consumer Information or Disclosures, or search for the calculator within the site or by using an outside search engine like Google.
  • It’s not always called a “net price calculator,” so also keep an eye out for the keywords “cost,” “estimator,” and “financial aid.”
  • The Department of Education has posted net price calculator URLs, as provided by colleges, on its College Navigator tool ( under “Net Price,” as well as on its resource page.
Answering the questions
  • Be prepared to encounter all kinds of calculators, from the simple (as few as 10 questions) to the complex (50 or more).  Some calculators ask questions that require you to dig up detailed financial information from your (or your parents’) tax returns, earnings statements, and bank statements.  If you don’t have that information handy, answer as best you can or try to skip the question.
  • Colleges cannot require you to provide your contact information. If you aren’t comfortable giving them your name, email address, or other information, you don’t have to.
Interpreting the results
  • The most important number on the page is the “net price” – the full cost of attendance minus grants and scholarships.  Make sure you focus on that dollar figure when interpreting calculator results and comparing colleges.  Some colleges also subtract their expectations of how much you’ll earn and borrow to get a smaller cost figure, but it won’t be called “net price.”

  Remember that grants and scholarships don’t need to be repaid,     while work expectations must be earned and loans repaid with       interest. That’s why work-study and loans are called “self-           help.” You don’t want to accidentally compare one school’s net     price with another school’s figure that includes loans and work-     study.

  • Be wary of estimates that include unrealistic amounts of self-help.  We have found calculators that subtract $20,000 or $30,000 worth of expected loans to get to what might be called a “final” or “out of pocket” cost figure of zero.  This can make colleges look more affordable than they really are.  It may look like you will have no out-of-pocket costs, but the costs are just delayed.
  • The results are only estimates and colleges can calculate them differently, so use them to make ballpark comparisons between colleges.  Don’t draw conclusions based on differences of several dollars or even several hundreds of dollars – talk to the schools’ financial aid offices to find out more.
  • The estimates are only for your first year of college and apply to a particular academic year (e.g., 2011-12). If you expect to enter college at a later date, know that the college’s costs and financial aid policies may change.
  • Not all grants and scholarships are available for all years of college.  You can contact the college’s financial aid office (or try searching its website) to find out whether you can expect the same amount of grant assistance after your first year.
  • As all net price calculators are required to tell you, the estimates are not final or binding financial aid awards.  To get an actual aid offer, you have to apply to the school for admission and fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to qualify for federal financial aid, and you may have to fill other applications for aid from your state or college. Net price calculators can help you decide whether to take those next steps.
For more information about net price calculators, please visit our Net Price Calculator Publications and Resources Page:

Posted in

| Tagged


Subscribe to Blog