Apples to Apples: How You Can Compare Real College Costs

College costs can be as difficult to decode as healthcare expenses.

There is the expense of tuition (often different for in-state and out-of-state students), added to which are room and board, health insurance, books, and a flurry of fees. What’s more, even when these various costs are added together, they do not reflect what many families actually pay. That is because, depending on family incomes and assets, students may receive a wide range of financial aid packages, which may themselves include some combination of grants, loans, and work-study allocations.

Because of the range of costs — and aid options — that families must consider, comparing schools is not a straightforward endeavor. Read on to learn how to calculate the net price of each college you’re considering — and how, in turn, to compare that to the cost of other schools.

“How much will it cost?”

It’s one of the scariest questions that the family of a college-bound student will face.

In an attempt to make college pricing less opaque, in 2008 Congress passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which requires every American college to publish an online calculator on its website so that students can learn how much a college will cost before they decide whether to apply. By using a net-price calculator, students can determine their individualized cost at a certain school after accounting for factors like financial aid, grants, and work-study.

But comparing costs among schools is still a challenge.

Enter College Abacus, a free online tool that allows families to calculate and compare their bottom-line tuition costs across more than 4,500 U.S. colleges and universities.

With its app integrated directly onto Noodle, College Abacus aims to make it easier for families to access the net-price calculators of thousands of schools and compare their individualized tuition options in an apples-to-apples format.

How does it work?

First, the calculator asks students to complete an online form with information about their personal and family finances (students should have income and tax statements handy). The College Abacus tool then generates estimates for the various schools a student is considering — and presents them together in one place. College Abacus users may save their information in free accounts, so they only need to enter their data once.

Is the net price the same as FAFSA’s Estimated Family Contribution?

Many families believe their FAFSA-calculated Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) is the final word on what they’ll pay for college, but this is almost never the case. Every school uses its own formula to allocate financial aid, and those net prices often vary greatly compared to a family’s EFC. Net-price calculators are the only way to uncover a school’s actual bottom line.

As students and families use schools’ net-price calculators, they may notice that different schools may ask different questions. While the U.S. Department of Education provides basic requirements for a compliant net-price calculator — and offers schools a free version they can post online — many schools have decided to build their own net-price calculators. This allows them to request additional information in order to provide more accurate individualized estimates. Schools customize their net-price calculators to reflect their individual financial aid formulas, and they are required to keep them up-to-date. Because College Abacus allows data to be saved, families can enter their information and count on it being there in the future.

What is the relationship between the sticker price and the net price?

Surprisingly, some net-price estimates may indicate that a school with a very high sticker price is actually affordable after accounting for financial aid, which can vary widely across even similar schools. One common misconception is that public universities are always a more affordable option, but the reality is that tuition sticker prices rarely tell the whole story, and elite institutions with big endowments can be significantly less expensive.

For this reason, students should start comparing college tuition costs — and financial aid estimates — before the fall of their senior year to avoid paying unnecessary application fees, committing to schools they can’t afford, or ruling out affordable schools with seemingly out-of-reach prices.

Assumptions can be costly when it comes to the college search process. With access to better information and tools, students can save tens of thousands of dollars over their academic careers. As students begin searching for and comparing schools, it’s important to remember that college costs aren’t always what they seem. Check out the new College Abacus widget on Noodle to make sure you have all the information you need to plan your college path.

Follow this link to start your college search now.


This blog post was contributed by Noodle, an education website helping parents and students make better decisions about learning. Noodle believes there is no one-size-fits-all solution in education; what matters is finding the right path for you, based on your interests, strengths and needs. Noodle seeks to empower you with the information and tools you need to find that path. 

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