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The price of college shouldn’t be a guessing game

June 16, 2024
By The Boston Globe Editorial Board

The price of college shouldn’t be a guessing game

Schools need to be more transparent about how much financial aid students get and the bottom-line cost of attendance.

How much does college actually cost? Students and families should be able to get a straight answer to that question, from any institution in the country, in a way that makes it easy to comparison shop. But right now, too many schools make it inordinately difficult to get a bottom-line figure.

That murkiness can cause real problems, scaring some families away from schools they might actually be able to afford or luring students into programs that turn out to be more expensive than they understood.

The solution is for colleges to list their prices in a standard, easy-to-understand format. But getting there is complicated.

The listed cost, or “sticker price” — $90,000 at some Boston-area private institutions — is rarely a helpful guide because almost no one actually pays the sticker price. In 2023-2024, the average listed tuition and fees for a private nonprofit four-year college was $41,540, according to the College Board. The average cost to attend, with supplies, housing, and food, was $60,420. But the average student paid just $15,910 in tuition and fees, after financial aid.

So while students know they’ll probably pay less than sticker price, it’s often hard to tell how much less. While colleges publicize information about their financial aid programs, their financial aid offers can be hard to decipher or compare to other schools’.

The US Government Accountability Office in 2022 recommended that Congress require colleges to write financial aid offers with clear, standard information that follows best practices, and bills are pending in Congress that would require this.

Even without a legal mandate, though, colleges should voluntarily make offer letters and published pricing information as clear and transparent as possible. State and federal governments could help by publishing clear guidance around language and best practices.

The College Cost Transparency Initiative, spearheaded by a group of higher education leaders, has gotten more than 550 colleges nationwide to commit to a set of standards relating to financial aid information. “We believe that in the spirit of both transparency and competition, students need to be able to compare apples to apples,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, who leads the initiative’s task force.

Ten Massachusetts schools have made the commitment, including Brandeis University, University of Massachusetts, Emerson College, and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Officials at some participating schools say it required only small changes. For example, Williams College began itemizing a wider range of expected expenses, like health insurance and summer storage, in its financial aid letter. Smith College officials changed terminology like explaining work-study requirements, replacing “room and board” with “housing and meals,” and using a recommended layout to make comparisons easier with other schools.

One recommendation all schools should follow is publicizing the total cost of college attendance with an itemized breakdown of how much students have to pay the school directly (tuition and fees), how much they can expect to spend on supplies (books and subscriptions), and how much they are likely to pay for housing, food, and other personal expenses.

The GAO report says only 45 percent of schools itemize direct and indirect costs. Around 24 percent of schools do not provide any cost of attendance in financial aid offers — even tuition and fees.

Estimating indirect expenses is not an exact science. A report by uAspire, which advocates for improved financial aid policies, found that a public Boston two-year college estimated indirect expenses for an off-campus student at $13,022, while a private four-year college less than 2 miles away estimated an off-campus student’s expenses at $23,858. The uAspire report found that terminology isn’t comparable: On college websites, 72 colleges used 52 different terms to describe personal expenses (things as varied as clothing, entertainment, cellphones, and school activity fees). To make comparisons easier, colleges should spell out what is included in each calculation, and government guidelines should list best practices for what to include.

Another good practice is to list each source of aid, separating grants from loans, and be specific about whether grants are one-time or annual and what the conditions are for each type of aid. For example, the GAO says 31 percent of colleges include Parent PLUS loans (which parents can apply for) in financial aid offers. But parent loans often have higher interest rates than student loans and not all parents qualify. Around 15 percent of schools do not distinguish between gift aid, loans, and work-study in their letters, according to the GAO. If one school distinguishes between grants and loans and another does not, a student might pick the school that appears cheaper without understanding that they will pay more over time.

Finally, the federal government requires schools to publish net price calculators on their websites so applicants can get a price estimate. But Femi Stoltz, Massachusetts policy director at UAspire, said calculators can be hard to find or fill out and can use outdated information. There may be a need for more guidance or technological tools to ensure these calculators are accurate and easy to use.

For example, Wellesley College economics professor Phillip Levine created a nonprofit, MyinTuition, that obtains financial aid data from universities and then builds cost calculators. Levine said the company gave 750,000 estimates last year, and people use his calculators because they are simple. Rather than requesting tax data or using terms like “adjusted gross income,” the tool asks basic questions about income, assets, savings, and home value.

There are other resources to help students understand college costs. The US government’s college scorecard, for example, tells students that the average annual cost (after financial aid) for attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is $20,338 compared to $39,090 for Boston College. But students who search for these tools already tend to be those with more resources and commitment to attending college.

Schools need to make more of an effort to publicize clear, transparent, and accurate price information, both when students are considering applying to school and when they are weighing offers. If they do not, the case for legislation requiring them to will only become stronger.

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