New tool to compare college costs earns a C

Jar labeled college fund filled with cash

How much does college cost?

It's a good question, but not a particularly helpful one. It's a little like asking, "How high is up?"

College costs are all over the map, from inexpensive community schools to midprice state universities to pricey little liberal arts institutions.

You can compare list prices, which is a start.

In reality, though, the sticker price might not matter all that much because scholarships, grants, and loans can mean that your family pays far less than the published freight.

Enter the College Scorecard, an offering from the U.S. Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center.

The scorecard lists the average price that students pay to attend a particular school. They define this number as the net cost for a year after deducting financial aid students won't have to pay back.

Unfortunately, the site doesn't tell us the school's sticker price, which you'll have to hunt for elsewhere to get a sense of the typical discount.

The site also presents data on:

Chart showing the average cost and total number of student loans

The site eventually hopes to say something about the kinds of jobs a particular school's graduates get.

In the meantime, it suggests that we check out for information about industries, job titles and their necessary qualifications and future prospects.

I took my own undergraduate college for a spin.

Carleton College is in Northfield, Minn., and lists an annual price of $56,728. (It was $18,000 the year I graduated.) That is much more than I can imagine paying for my child to attend college.

The average price that families pay, though, is just $28,818.

A solid 92.6% of students graduate within six years, and the loan default rate is just 1.3% compared with the national average of 13.4%.

Average loans total $17,749, or $204.26 per month over 10 years of repayment.

That's not cheap, but it's not the heart attack that the first number gave me.

For a comparison, let's check out the local state school.

Last year, the University of Minnesota's Minneapolis branch charged in-state students $13,022 and out-of-state students $18,022.

The website tells me the average price of attending is $16,019. Already I'm confused. We live in Minnesota, but we'll pay more than $13,022?

Never mind. I can still use parts of this.

Minnesota has a 70.2% graduation rate within six years, substantially lower than Carleton's, and its loan default rate is 2.5%, nearly double that of Carleton.

That tells me that fewer University of Minnesota students, as a proportion of the total, are getting the degree they're paying to earn.

Families typically borrow $19,110 to attend Minnesota, for an average monthly loan payment of $219.92 over 10 years of repayment.

So families of students at the University of Minnesota typically borrow more than families of Carleton students. That probably means that average Carleton families are more prosperous than average Minnesota families.

But for a pair of schools with price tags closer to one another, that could mean the school with lower average borrowing is more generous with grants and scholarships.

 Wife gesturing to husband over paperwork

Cosigning a student loan is parenting's new financial hazard. Unless you’re very careful when taking on debt for your child’s education, you could be endangering your own financial livelihood — and you might not be doing your child any favors, either. A growing number of moms, dads and even grandparents are getting stuck with a debt they can't hope to repay.

Clearly this site isn't perfect. It's just the newest entry into a growing field of tools that lets parents and student estimate college costs.

It should tell us:

The fact is, though, the amount you'll end up paying will probably be nothing like either the sticker price or the average cost.

Your family's finances and your student's desirability are your ultimate price drivers. Many colleges have a price estimator app that's specific to that school; these are worth investigating.

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