Planning for college is fraught with uncertainty about everything from which college and major to choose to how much it will cost. With nearly 70 percent of high school students enrolling in higher-education programs after graduation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, millions of students and their families are overwhelmed and looking for guidance on their options.
Students weigh many factors when choosing a college, but one that often makes the decision difficult is price. When it comes to planning, most students and their families are on their own. The typical high school student receives only 38 minutes of college-planning preparation at school each year, according to a 2005 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
“Millions of students and their families experience great anxiety around college planning because nobody has insight into what their true out-of-pocket college costs will be,” said David Childress, general manager of Student-Aid.com. “A college’s sticker price is not the price you’ll pay. You can comparison shop for everything from mobile phones to houses, but not for one of life’s biggest investments – your children’s education.”
Many families begin planning for college by creating a 529 tax-free account, which helps offset the college-cost burden. However, the recession’s weakened stock prices have reduced the value of many of these accounts.
High school students often start receiving college brochures as early as sophomore year to help them determine which colleges offer programs they’re interested in. During junior and senior years, many students will visit their top college choices, meet with professors, talk to other students and research some of the 800 Web sites and guide books about colleges to figure out which of the country’s 6,800 colleges are the best fit.
But finances need to be determined early – well before a student starts investigating the programs different colleges offer. Until recently, college net prices remained a mystery. Net price is the cost of tuition, room and board, books and supplies and additional living expenses minus grants. But beginning in October 2011, all colleges receiving federal funding must provide a net-price calculator on their Web sites to help prospective students gauge affordability. To date, only a handful of colleges have installed calculators. Some college-planning Web sites offer basic calculators that are not personalized and exclude the $10 billion available from state grants or scholarships.
StudentAid.com has developed the College Cost & Planning Report to make the process easy and personalized to a student’s academic and financial circumstances. Students and parents can view a side-by-side college net-price comparison and student aid eligibility for as many as 10 colleges. Each report includes a personalized timeline, detailed college profiles and specific grants and tax benefits a student is qualified to receive.
“By determining their aid eligibility and net price, we’re giving college-bound consumers a new power,” Childress said. “Knowing net price lets a family evaluate colleges based on which ones offer the best deal, so they can plan ahead with a realistic idea of how much out of pocket parents and the student will pay.”
Shelene Worland of Mountain View is the mother of twin daughters researching college.
“Obviously, everything you do from preschool on up is preparing them for college,” she said. “I found out about StudentAid.com through word-of-mouth through a friend. It really puts a lot more information at your fingertips about the cost of college. It gives you a better idea of what you’re looking at for expenses and what your eligibility is for financial aid.”
One of Worland’s daughters is interested in a state college, while the other likes the smaller campuses of private colleges. Having a side-by-side comparison of net price allows Worland to ensure that her daughters look at colleges that fit their bank account and career ambitions. The Web site helped narrow college choices, she said.
“I would suggest that parents start looking at this during their kids’ junior year, and look at it a couple times,” she said. “There could be a lot of time wasted on schools you can’t really consider, and this helps them focus on what is possible.”
With support from USA Funds, the nation’s largest student loan guarantor, StudentAid.com offers its college planning service free to all students with a household income of less than $40,000. The service costs other students $49 to $99.
For more information, visit www.StudentAid.com.