Online tools to compare college costs

July 12th, 2013 Mike Finlayson

The cost of higher education has skyrocketed, and borrowing for a college education has become a reality of life.

Unfortunately, making sense of financial aid packages and college tuition is anything but simple. Too often students receive financial aid award letters that are full of jargon, use inconsistent terms and calculations, and make it unnecessarily difficult to make apple-to-apple comparisons.

Thankfully, there are a number of online tools designed to make college cost comparisons easier:

College Affordability and Transparency Center

The College Affordability and Transparency Center features information for students, parents, and policymakers about college costs at America’s colleges and universities. The site – developed by the U.S. Department of Education – includes several lists of institutions based on the tuition and fees.

Users can examine six different lists based on nine categories. Three lists focus on tuition and fees and three focus on the institution’s average net price, which is the average price after grants and scholarships are taken into account.

Net Price Calculator Center

Net price calculators are available on most college or university websites and give prospective students the ability to enter information about themselves to find out what students like them paid to attend the institution in the previous year, after taking grants and scholarship aid into account.

Most colleges and universities are now required to have net price calculators on their websites. The U.S. Department of Education’s Net Price Calculator Center lets you search for your school’s net price calculator.

When you’re comparing net prices, make sure to compare both in-state, out-of-state and private institutions. Schools may have different incentives and comparing them side-by-side will give you the ability to identify the best value.

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s “Paying for College” hub features lots of useful tools for comparing college costs. The most interesting is a tool that lets you compare financial aid offers from up to three different schools so you can see how the offers will impact your payments down the road. The tool even lets you upload the code from your financial aid offer’s XML file to transfer the information.

Know before you Owe “Shopping Sheet”

The “Shopping Sheet” was developed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Education as part of their “Know Before You Owe” program.

The idea here is that a single sheet of basic information would help students and their families better understand all the costs of a college education before deciding which school to attend.

“This form, which presents a model of what all financial aid award letters should be, would provide a uniform way to inform potential students of their true college costs – before they commit to a school,” said Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau when the sheet was formally launched.

Remember – it’s never too early to start saving for college. For more college savings tips, take a look at this “6 tips for college savings” article.

Mike Finlayson

About the author

Mike Finlayson is Second Vice President at MidWestOne Bank. He works with MidWestOne customers to help them manage their personal finances and identify effective money management solutions.

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