Former Ed secretary: Only 4 percent of colleges worth the money. Families: Pick value.

Former Education Secretary Bennett argues that most of America's 3,500 colleges aren't worth the investment. As costs rise, more families are taking a harder look at a college's value instead of its reputation.

By , Staff writer

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    Students study in a library at California State University, Long Beach. State universities, which are less costly, have increasing appeal as families increasingly emphasize a college's value instead of its reputation.
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At this point, it's an old story: College costs are wildly out of control. Americans owe more on student loans than they do on credit cards. Tuition costs have ballooned ­– even at public universities – and state budget costs could push them even higher.

So is college worth the ever-increasing investment? In most cases, it's not, says William Bennett, President Reagan's former education secretary and co-author of a new book, "Is College Worth It?" 

Nearly half of those who start a four-year college don't finish, he points out. Of those who did graduate in 2011, half are unemployed or radically underemployed. By his reckoning, only 150 of America's 3,500 colleges are worth it. Topping his list for return on investment are Harvey Mudd College, California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, and Princeton.

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Many families might not identify with Mr. Bennett's conservative philosophy. But there's mounting evidence that financial pressures are forcing them to change the way they pick a college. Instead of stretching to pay for a dream school, many are looking first for the best value.

"I've been doing this 11 years, and definitely in the last three, there's been a lot more questions about financial aid and attention to how much college actually costs," says Lenny Libenzon, the guidance coordinator at Brookline High School in Brookline, Mass. "We spend much more time discussing it."

But finding the best value isn't always easy, which is why educators and policymakers are pushing to make school costs more transparent and easier to compare. Here are some of the efforts under way:

1. Calculating costs

The Obama administration has made sweeping efforts to make the price of college more straightforward. In February, the Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center unveiled its "College Scorecard," a searchable database that provides information on a university's net cost, graduation rate, and students' average monthly federal loan payment after graduation.

The scorecard has "the potential to be a game changer for higher education," wrote the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit advocacy group with offices in Washington, D.C., and Oakland, Calif., in a statement upon the scorecard's release.

Individual schools, too, are now required to have price calculators on their websites. Other tools include finaid.org and naviance.com, websites that help prospective college students find private scholarships and loan options.

"It's a baby step in the right direction," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of fastweb.com and finaid.org. Now that schools are required to have their net costs laid out up front, the sticker shock can have real effects. "We find that if the price between two schools is less than $1,000, people tend to focus on other things. Above $5,000, price takes precedence. In between, people agonize."

One reason: The lure of going to the best school remains strong. In the most recent survey by the University of California at Los Angeles of nearly 200,000 new college freshmen, academic reputation was the top factor in picking a school. But cost of attendance was characterized as "very important" by 43.3 percent of students – that factor's highest mark to date.

The data is still a little skewed, especially in regard to loans. At Florida State University, for instance, the net price is $12,464 and the median monthly loan payment is $215.78. At Harvard, the net price is $6,000 higher, but the monthly loan payments are lower, at $88.61, presumably because fewer students take out federal loans. Schools with a high dropout rate can also look like a better deal because fewer students accumulate a full four years of debt.

Another way to look for a good deal is through a list of best value schools, such as the one in Bennett's book or online rankings from U.S. News & World Report or the Princeton Review

2. Adjusting to a changing student body

One of the challenges of combating high college costs is accommodating a student body that looks nothing like it used to. Transfer students, for example, make up an increasingly large chunk of the student body: between 30 and 50 percent, depending on how it's counted. But many schools have policies that inadvertently boost costs for students.

"Many colleges require a transfer student to make a commitment to attend before they will give out information about transfer credits," says Alex Ott, an associate dean of New York Institute of Technology, based in Old Westbury, and former president of the New York State Transfer and Articulation Association. Without knowing which of their previously earned academic credits count toward their degree until they pay, or, in some cases, actually enroll, students can end up spending more time and money.

Such policies aren't ploys to squeeze extra money out of students, but relics of a less cost-conscious era, Dr. Ott says. Front offices and orientation efforts are geared toward true freshmen, and many schools simply don't have the manpower or infrastructure in place to help transfer students adjust, financially or otherwise. He recommends that potential transfer students ask for credit information up front, even if it isn't university policy to give it: "If you are forceful enough, you can get answers," he says.

3. Starting the money conversation

At Brookline High School, Mr. Libenzon now recommends that families figure out how much they can afford before starting the application process.

"Before, a lot of people were applying first and then looking at cost, but in my presentations I've started telling parents to make sure to talk about how much they can afford as early as junior year. That way there's less of a heartbreak, and it's a lot easier for the student to decide where to go," he says. The school holds an annual seminar with a state educational financing representative, an event that has become very popular with parents.

The result? In a school where 14 percent of the 2009 senior class were National Merit semifinalists, guidance counselors have seen applications to state schools soar.

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