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Deciphering The True Cost Of College: Online Tool Aims To Help Students Predict Payment

A laptop computer open to
Elodie Reed
VPR is a new online tool from The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit news outlet, that helps prospective college students predict what they can expect to pay when enrolling at various colleges in the United States.

One of the first things students embarking on a college search learn is just how expensive college tuition can be. The sticker price for a single year's tuition at private colleges and universities can top $50,000, not including costs such as books and on-campus room and board.

But what students also quickly learn is that, between grants, scholarships and need-based financial aid, many students don't pay the sticker price. In fact, there are some schools where almost no students pay the advertised price.

So how is a potential college student supposed to know what a school will charge them before they apply?

Considering the cost of college

College websites have net price calculators that can help estimate the total cost of attendance and predict how much financial aid is likely to be awarded based on a student’s financial situation and, in some cases, academic success. But in order to use those tools accurately, students need to provide detailed information from tax returns and other family financial documents. Students might also be asked to provide standardized test scores and grade point averages.

The net price calculators tell a prospective student what students in a similar financial situation paid to attend the school the previous year. The calculators do not estimate what the prospective student can expect to pay when they enroll.

But a tool recently developed by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education news outlet run out of Teachers College at Columbia University, does something other online tools do not. Thistool at uses historical tuition trends to predict what a school will cost next year, when the prospective student plans to attend.

More from The Hechinger Report — Click here to explore the Tuition Tracker tool.

Pete D’Amato, a data visualization developer at the Hechinger Report, said Tuition Tracker looks at the total cost of attendance — which includes tuition and also fees, books, on-campus living costs and other associated expenses.

The point of the tool, D'Amato said, "is to help students to make decisions about which colleges they're looking to attend, based on the financials that are going to be going into their decision making."

How a new tool works

D’Amato said the tool, now in its third iteration, predicts net rates by income bracket. The tool also shows what percentage of students pay the full sticker price at a given school.

"This iteration is using some projections based on historical sticker prices that help students understand a little bit more about what they're going to be paying in the coming year, rather than what students like them would have been paying two or three years ago," D'Amato explained.

Old Chapel at Middlebury College
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
Middlebury College offers substantial tuition discounts for low- and moderate-income students.

He said the projections are based on the compound annual growth for the total cost of attendance at a college, going back 10 years. The tool takes the average growth rate per year and applies it to current price.

According to D’Amato, it's a fairly conservative estimate.

Tuition Tracker asks students to put themselves in one of five broad income brackets. For example, the tool projects the advertised 2020-2021 total cost of attendance for a student living on campusat Middlebury College will be $76,681.

However, a student considering Middlebury College whose family earns between $48,001 and $75,000 per year could expect to pay $12,931 for the 2020-2021 school year.

More from VPR — An Explanation Of Looming College Admission Deadlines [Nov. 4]

Tuition Tracker also provides the most recent statistics available regarding the percentage of students that paid the full sticker price; for Middlebury, that was 57% in 2016.

A building at Bennington College
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR
According to Tuition Tracker, only 16% of Bennington College students paid the sticker price in 2016.

According to the tool, a student with a similar family income could expect to pay $30,520 to live and study at Bennington College, where the 2020-2021 total cost of attendance sicker price is projected to be $78,486. At Bennington College, only 16% of students paid the sticker price in 2016.

"When you look at what we have seen in terms of the differences between net price and sticker price – in the historical data – there are lots of surprises in that," D'Amato said.

Using the financial data

Using Tuition Tracker data, The Hechinger Report projected the University of Chicago will be the first institution in the country to cost $100,000 a year to attend. D’Amato, who authored the article, predicted that could happen by 2025. He noted the overall cost of attendance at the University of Chicago – already one of the most expensive schools in the country – has been rising steadily. But, he said, the university uses the extra revenue to provide grants to students from low- and moderate-income households.

"If your family's making below $75,000 a year, you could be attending for under $5,000 for each year," D'Amato said.

By setting a high sticker price, D'Amato said colleges have more flexibility in offering aid to certain types of students that they are trying to attract, be it financial need-based aid or academic scholarships.

"You have some schools that are not able to do the same kind of tuition discounting," D'Amato said, "and, these schools, you’ll see almost no space [in the price of attendance] between the lowest income and the highest income students that are attending there. So, that is essentially showing you that some of these schools are providing a lot of their grant aid just to meet enrollment goals."

In addition to providing a historical price trend for each school, Tuition Tracker also breaks down graduation rates by race, retention rates by type of enrollment and gender demographics.

From NPR's Life Kit Podcast — "How To Pay For College"

D’Amato said he hopes students will use Tuition Tracker as one more tool in their toolbox as they compare colleges.

"When students are using this, we hope that they visit the tool, use it to compare broadly different schools that they may be considering," he said, "and then also, you know, going on and checking the net price calculator for schools and other resources that can give them a more full picture of what they might be paying when they attend."

Tuition Tracker’s metrics are based on information from the U.S. Department of Education for first-time, first-year students. The colleges and universities included in the tool are all U.S.-based degree-granting institutions.

Amy is an award winning journalist who has worked in print and radio in Vermont since 1991. Her first job in professional radio was at WVMX in Stowe, where she worked as News Director and co-host of The Morning Show. She was a VPR contributor from 2006 to 2020.
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