Calculating how much college actually costs

Days after the College Board announced that tuition at America’s public universities increased 8.3 percent this year, higher-education institutions quietly met a weekend deadline for reporting what students actually pay, after grants and other financial aid are taken into account.

Photo courtesy of Christian "VisualBeo" Horvat

The “net price” accounts for tuition minus scholarships, grants, and income from on-campus jobs, on average, for a full-time first-year undergraduate. It’s typically much lower than the so-called “sticker price.” But universities have been reluctant to disclose net prices, fearing that students and their parents would demand deeper discounts—and that many would resent learning that they pay more than some of their classmates.

“There’s some concern … that they will anticipate that that’s exactly what their financial aid will look like,” said Jane Brown, vice president of enrollment at Northeastern University in Boston.

The so-called “net price calculator” was required by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, but many universities waited until the October 29th deadline to post the data. A spot check showed that some still had not provided the information at all.

The College Board estimates that fewer than 12 percent of students at private colleges and universities—and about half of those at public universities—pay the full advertised price.

Advocates for providing net price data say that doing so is the only way students can know the real cost of college—including those who may be discouraged by the list price.

“It’s an incremental step,” said Jamie Merisotis, president of Lumina Foundation for Education, which advocates for higher enrollment and graduation rates and which is among the funders of The Hechinger Report.

“These efforts at transparency are very useful. We’re going to have to do more to better inform current and prospective students,” Merisotis said.