Higher Education Costs Can Be Confusing

By Chute, Eleanor | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), February 12, 2015 | Go to article overview

Higher Education Costs Can Be Confusing


Chute, Eleanor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


If you think understanding higher education costs is confusing, you're not alone.

Many students don't pay the full tuition rate, and at some schools almost nobody does. Housing plans vary by amenities and location.

Tuition and fees can be higher in the sciences than in the humanities. Then there are fees tacked on along the way, from orientation to graduation.

Colleges offer a net price calculator on their websites, aimed at giving students an idea of what costs are, what financial aid they might expect to get and how much they might expect to pay. These calculators show a total cost of attendance -- tuition, fees, room, board, books and other expenses, such as transportation and personal expenses.

The calculator then estimates the amount of scholarships and other grants -- money that never has to be paid back -- to determine a net price. Some also suggest loans, which do have to be paid back, that could help to pay the bills.

But these calculators provide just rough estimates, not necessarily answers tailored to all of your circumstances. The cost of your major, housing, transportation and other expenses may be different. You may qualify for aid that doesn't show up -- or not qualify for aid that does. And some use out-of-date tuition figures.

"I wouldn't put much credence in them. They could be off by more than $10,000 either way," said Kalman Chany, author of "Paying for College without Going Broke."

To find out how much it really will cost you, Paul-James Cukanna, associate provost for enrollment management at Duquesne University, said there is no shortcut.

"I think they have to play the game," he said. "To play the game usually means you have to apply, you have to be accepted at an institution, and you have to go through the merit and financial aid process to really determine your true net cost."

Mr. Cukanna said applying may not be as onerous as it might sound; many schools have online applications for which they waive or don't charge a fee.

Applying to multiple schools can be important in determining the best price and choice.

Consider the costs of Harvard and the main campus of Penn State University.

On the surface, Harvard, with a total cost of attendance of $59,950 would seem to be more expensive than Penn State at $33,592, using 2013-14 figures from the National Center for Education Statistics.

But, Harvard cost an average of just $2,977 and Penn State $21,229 for beginning students receiving aid and whose family income is between $30,000 to $48,000, using 2012-13 numbers, the most recent available from the NCES,

Even among Allegheny County four-year colleges, the figures showed that the average net price for that income category can vary by nearly $10,000 a year.

School-by-school numbers can be found on a federal website, nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator or in charts on Tuition Tracker, tuitiontracker.org, a project of the Education Writers Association, the Hechinger Report and newspapers in Dallas and Omaha.

Students need to evaluate each offer separately, looking at how much "free" money -- grants or scholarships -- is included, how much is loans and how much need isn't met. Some may get to the same bottom line but use more loans to do so. Some schools do not meet full need, even with federal student loans.

At Duquesne University, 98 percent of students are awarded scholarships from $6,500 to full tuition, Mr. Cukanna said.

As to why Duquesne and other schools don't simply lower the sticker price, he said that the higher sticker price enables schools to use scholarships strategically to attract students.

Money coach Lynnette Khalfani Cox, author of "College Secrets" and "College Secrets for Teens," said families need to consider all costs, not just those included in net price calculators.

"In a nutshell, being focused exclusively on tuition costs is short-sighted and doesn't really capture the heart of the out-of- pocket expenses that a family is likely to pay," she said. …

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