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Can You Afford to Go to College?

July 09, 2010 By: Category: Aid for College, Financial Student Aid

Today we have a guest post from Mary Fallon from Studentaid.com

The most confusing part of college planning is understanding your net price and out-of-pocket costs before applying.  Your specific cost of college is a mystery because your eligibility for student aid, which reduces costs, usually isn’t provided until after a college accepts you and issues an aid award letter. By then, it’s too late to comfortably comparison shop to find which college will offer you the best deal.  Not having a choice among affordable colleges may lead to borrowing huge amounts that will take many years to pay back after college graduation.

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Photo by Medium Boy

Some students who want to go to college don’t even apply because the “sticker price” colleges post on Web sites and handbooks scares them off.  But sticker price is not the price most students pay. Two colleges may have vastly different sticker prices, but your net cost to attend both may be similar. Your net cost may even be less at the college with the higher sticker price.

To help prospective college students know – before they spend money on applications – just how much student aid to expect from each college, the U.S. Congress approved a college-cost transparency law. The law makes all schools that offer federal aid – from career schools to major research universities –to post a net price calculator on their Web sites by October 2011. If you’d like to see how a net price calculator helps you, try the one offered by the University of Arkansas.

How to Determine the Net Cost of College without a Net Cost Calculator?

If you don’t see a net price calculator on a college Web site, ask the financial aid office when it will be available and whether they will figure your net price by hand.

Because most of the 7,000 post-secondary schools haven’t posted their net price calculators yet, there are additional resources to help determine your student aid eligibility.

We at StudentAid.com offer free college-planning information and a free utility – the College Suggestor, which provides names of the colleges most commonly considered by other students who were interested in the same colleges as the user.

In addition to all of this free information, StudentAid.com can put you in touch with one of our Student Aid Advisors, who figures out your aid, net price, and out-of-pocket estimates. You get the results as a personalized College Cost & Planning Report™, a workbook that compares your chosen colleges side-by-side so you can decide which is the best fit for you. Your workbook has a custom planning timeline, information about grants you’re eligible to receive and how financial aid works, and in-depth profiles of each college – saving you time and money. The service is free for low-income students.

Don’t get mislead by college-cost calculators on news and college-planning Web sites. Typically they are based on incomplete, outdated, or imprecise information, so they won’t show what your real costs will be and their “Expected Family Contribution” numbers often are too inaccurate to guide your financial decisions.

However, there are some objective college comparison Web sites that while not able to calculate your student aid eligibility accurately like we do at StudentAid.com, they do compare how much average aid is awarded.  So we don’t sound biased about our services, here are a few other options:

College Results Online
is one Web resource that shows federal, state, and college aid averages along with graduation and retention rates so you’ll know whether you’ll be paying for four or more years of college bills.

Another general resource is College InSight that lets you build a comparison table from dozens of variables to help you narrow your search.

Learn your aid eligibility and net price early in your college planning process.  If you’re in high school, by junior year or no later than the summer before senior year is the best time to focus on which colleges will fit your academic goals and bank account. Knowing your aid eligibility before applying to colleges will reduce your anxiety about where to apply and how much money you can expect to reduce your out-of-pocket costs for college.


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