College tuition: New law aims for more transparency in costs
Federal law now requires institutions to be more upfront about college tuition and other fees. Will choosing the right school be easier for families?
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For ballpark figures, the calculators are helpful, Ms. Rubenstone says, but many families have unique circumstances that the calculators can't take into account. And one key element is difficult to predict: merit aid. "Only a handful of colleges get very specific about who gets their merit scholarships," she says, and that can make a big difference in a student's bottom line.Skip to next paragraph
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Student advocates are watching closely to see if the NPCs fulfill the spirit of the law. "Some calculators take into account loans [and work-study earnings] and get down to zero" for the price they highlight to students, which could be misleading, says Matthew Reed, program director of the Institute for College Access & Success in Oakland, Calif. Students should be able to easily compare colleges based on the total of what they would have to pay, he says, even if they might put off some of the expense through loans.
Another provision of the new federal law: Schools now have to post the list of required textbooks with the course schedule used for registration, so that students can plan for those costs and shop around for the best deals.
For all the helpfulness of online tools, sometimes personal mentoring works best. In an effort to boost college attendance and success among low-income and first-generation students, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission started ISACorps last year – a network of more than 70 recent graduates who are paid $25,000 a year to assist younger students in their communities.
ISACorps worker Kelly Morgan helps students in the Chicago suburbs look beyond sticker prices, research schools' financial aid policies, and fill out an online form (the FAFSA4caster) to estimate their federal aid.
When students get accepted and look at their aid letters, "we dissect that information," Ms. Morgan says. Some scholarships may cover books and other expenses, while other schools may claim that books will cost only $100 a semester, a suspiciously low figure.
Morgan knows how confusing it can be to determine which college options are affordable. Her parents had a strong aversion to the high sticker price of private Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., but she says she received so much financial aid there that it turned out to be cheaper than her sister's education at a public university.