Every year, a new crop of parents joins the college search rat race with their student and is shocked that finding out how much college costs is so complicated — nothing like their own college days.
Locating averages is simple enough: According to the College Board, the average listed price of an in-state public university last year was $22,180, while private colleges averaged $50,770.
The thing is, most students don’t pay the published price, particularly at private colleges. And figuring out your family’s likely price — determined in part by what a college determines you can afford — is no simple feat.
“College pricing isn’t transparent,” says Stephanie Hancock, a private college counselor and owner of California-based College Aid Consulting. “Imagine going into a shoe store and asking, ‘how much is this pair,’ only to have the salesperson ask, ‘how much have you got in your wallet?’”
In fact, you can’t get a precise, individualized price at most colleges until after you’ve applied, been accepted and received your financial aid letter. But there are tools you can use much earlier in the application process that can help you estimate your individual costs or generate college lists based on financial aid. Here’s how they work.
Tools That Help You Find a Reliable College Cost Estimate
Net Price Calculators
Every college is required to have a net price calculator on its website that gives families an idea of what they’d pay after subtracting grants and scholarships. But some of these calculators are more accurate than others. Generally, the more questions they ask, the better the calculators are, experts say. You’ll have to go to each individual college you’re interested in and submit information about your family’s finances to get an estimate.
College Aid Pro
The free version of this tool offers information on financial aid and scholarship eligibility for up to three colleges. You’ll input grades, test scores and basic information on parent income and assets. The tool then calculates scholarships and need-based grants your student is likely to qualify for and compares awards across the colleges you’ve selected. Vicki Beam, owner of Michigan College Planning, likes College Aid Pro’s software, and says it also does a good job of projecting annual tuition increases, which can help you understand costs beyond the first year.
That said, the free version is quite limited with the ability to compare just three colleges. A $149 subscription gets you unlimited comparisons and other perks like an advanced college search and on-demand coaching. For $299, you also get a one-on-one meeting with an industry expert.
This free tool allows you to create a college list by attributes such as geography, size, admissions selectivity, cost of attendance or “financial needs met.” For example, you could filter by your state and 100% “meets need” to come up with a list of colleges generous with financial aid (or learn that your state doesn’t have any). But the list doesn’t show your personalized costs. For that, there are a couple calculators and tools to help you estimate and later to compare your financial aid awards at various schools. (Editor’s note: As of publishing, these features are in the process of being updated and aren’t available.)
This college search tool will show you the average GPA and test scores associated with a college, as well as admission rates, like the share of students admitted during the “early decision” round compared to “regular decision." The tool doesn’t list estimated costs. But it does crowdsource financial aid and merit scholarship details so families who know their “expected family contribution,” or EFC, from the FAFSA can look at the prices given to others with the same EFC. (You don’t have to wait to fill out the FAFSA during senior year to predict your EFC. More on that below.) Check out the tool with a free 7-day trial. After that, it’s $24.99 per month until you cancel.
Unlike College Data and College Aid Pro, this tool asks you to input your colleges of interest. That’s not a bad thing, but it requires your student to know the colleges they’re interested in rather than generating a list for you based on factors like region or school size. After you pick your schools, the site will then generate a set of “college matches” based on your information and show an estimated net price for each one much like colleges’ net price calculators do, but in a platform that’s easy to compare colleges.
Similar to College Raptor, Edmit asks you to input your student’s academic information, your family’s financial profile and then the schools you want to compare. It then calculates an estimated cost per school based on your student’s profile. You can dig into a more detailed “Financial Grade Report” for each of your colleges to get more information on your projected out-of-pocket cost. Edmit also puts more emphasis on student debt than most of these other tools; alongside your estimated price, you’ll see an estimate for how much you’ll have to borrow to attend that college and what your monthly student loan payments would be after graduation.
Tuition Fit calls itself the Kelley Blue Book of college pricing because it relies heavily on user-submitted financial aid packages to help families estimate their own college prices. You input your student’s academic information, parent financials, and expected family contribution to generate a list of colleges in your range. A premium account for $49 allows you to see actual college prices, drawn from real families’ financial aid awards that they upload to the site. You can see how your student stacks up with those who have similar grades, test scores and financial information.
Tips for Using Tools to Estimate Your College Costs
Experts caution that none of these tools are perfect; there’s no single magic platform offering a clear and reliable breakdown of your individual costs.
“It’s worth doing the research, but don’t expect 100% perfection on the estimate,” says Debbie Schwartz, owner of Road2College and creator of the Paying for College 101 Facebook group, a private community of parents in the thick of the college search. (Road2College runs the College Insight tool mentioned above.)
Still, there are some steps you can take to ensure that your estimated prices are as accurate as they can be.
Before hopping onto college search tools, learn your family’s expected family contribution to understand if your student is likely to qualify for financial aid or should focus on finding merit scholarships. You’ll get this number after filling out the FAFSA, the government’s application for financial aid, but you can get an EFC estimate ahead time. The College Board’s EFC calculator allows you to calculate a federal EFC (what you'd get from the FAFSA) as well as an institutional EFC (what you'd get from an additional financial aid form called the CSS Profile).
Understand that all of these tools draw from the same main data sources — the federal government’s IPEDS data and the Common Data Set. What makes the tools different from each other is how they sort the information and present it, as well as some proprietary — and potentially useful — information pulled from crowdsourced financial aid award information from each of the platforms’ users. Yet no tool has the full inside scoop on college pricing strategies, Schwartz says.
The bottom line is using college search tools can feel clunky and frustrating to new users, but if you put the time in to research college costs, you have a better chance of finding a college, possibly one you’ve never heard of, that offers financial aid or merit aid for your student’s financial and academic profile. College experts all stress that you shouldn't get attached to a particular college unless your family is confident you can afford it.
Alongside comparing information from a few of these tools, you can learn more about the college financial aid process and how to target best schools for your family’s profile by reading Ron Lieber’s The Price You Pay for College and Kal Chany’s nuts-and-boltsy Paying for College Without Going Broke, which is updated annually.
Finally, consider joining a college planning Facebook group, like Paying for College 101. You can ask questions of other parents and learn about unknown colleges to you. If nothing else, it’s an antidote to feeling alone in the rat race.