Is College Worth It? Answer May Depend on Accurate Net-Price Estimate

The screen shots are from online forms provided by the University of Minnesota and the University of North Carolina through the College Board net price calculator. These results were obtained by entering data in forms provided by both universities  to estimate the actual cost of attendance, as well as debt load. If you’d like to try it yourself, go here and sign in as “guest.” Then fill out the forms for these colleges making sure the so called AGI is zero, so that the student/parents are absolutely unable to contribute to the cost of education.

The resulting net cost at Minnesota is $11,268 and the student/parent is expected to borrow $8,600 per year for a staggering four-year debt of $34,400. Contrast this to the situation at the University of North Carolina, where a student with the same financial resources would see a net cost of $2,700 with loans of ZERO to the student/parent.

We’ve been having a serious discussion about financial aid at the University of Minnesota and as often happens the average citizen has a difficult time deciding whom to believe in such matters.

The screen captures above present a very good example. I noticed this while preparing a piece later posted on the Star-Tribune Community Voices blog: The Promise Scholarships, Another Whopper? Given the figure of $11,268 obtained from online forms provided by the University of Minnesota, I was surprised to see a figure quoted by the Star-Tribune of $6,743 for low-income students at Minnesota.  Low income was defined as families making $30,000 or less. Quite a discrepancy.

Today, with great fanfare, a new era of transparency about the actual cost of college was supposedly ushered in. ‘What’s the Most Expensive College? The Least? Education Dept. Puts It All Online” trumpets The New York Times.

But as illustrated above, it may take some time for things to settle down and accurate numbers be provided to interested students and their parents. Such transparency will be a good thing in the long run and will make clear some of the questionable practices of colleges and universities both in the tuition pricing racket and the net price/sticker price game.

Another benefit may be an actual decrease in the number of college applications.  Now, students and parents are forced to apply to many colleges in order to find out what the financial aid package will be.  With transparent data available about net costs, financial aid, and debt load, unrealistic institutions may be removed from the apply list.

And students and their parents of modest means may be pleasantly surprised to learn that a first rate education is not necessarily out of financial reach.  Macalester ($17,275) and Carleton ($18,601) have a comparatively low debt load at graduation. The University of Minnesota figure is $26,516. [2009 data from the Project on Student Debt]



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