A New Tool for Estimating College Costs

Last year, we did a podcast on college tuition which discussed the growing gap between a college’s “sticker price” and the actual tuition paid by low- and middle-income working families.  In order to demystify this gap — and help low-income families understand that many expensive private colleges are actually well within their reach — Wellesley College has just released a “Quick College Cost Estimator” calculator.

“The conversation that takes place around college costs is largely misguided,” Phillip B. Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley, told David Leonhardt of the Times. “People focus only on the sticker price. The sticker price is a meaningful statistic for roughly 40 percent of our students. The majority of our students are receiving financial aid, and for them the sticker price is an irrelevant number.”  While The College Board and Harvard have similar calculators, Leonhardt likes the simplicity of Wellesley’s version. “The larger point is that Wellesley’s calculator is a significant step in the growing effort to spread accurate information about college costs,” writes Leonhardt.  “As Mr. Levine says, the widespread misunderstanding of tuition ‘closes a door to people that shouldn’t be closed.'”


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  1. JF says:

    This is no different from the net price calculators EVERY college in the country has, as dictated by federal regulation. You can go on any college website and see this information. Do your research!

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  2. bruteostrich says:

    I think this does a disservice to these low and middle income families. The calculator shows an affordable cost while conveniently hiding the value of student loans that the student will be stuck with. Considering the current issues with student loan debt in the country, this is not very useful.

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    • emw says:

      I think you missed the point. Wellesley reduces the tuition they will pay. Look at the calculator web site; they use grants, not loans, to reduce tuition. It also notes that Wellesley students leave with low debt.

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      • Joe J says:

        They use grants if you make below a certain amount.
        When I put in sample numbers, much above that minimum. 70K/yr, no house, good savings, they mentioned a low cost, ($7000) but had a second number there a very high second number (Comprehensive Fee), which they never defined, which I’d assume was the loan.

        If my interpretation is correct, I’d be paying 7,000 and be taking out 50,000 in loans.
        I say my interpretation, because it doesn’t actually say that.

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      • Annie says:

        Joe J – The comprehensive fee (~$57K) is, effectively, the sticker price, the cost the estimator gave you, 7K, is the discounted amount (about what you’d be expected to pay of the $57K total). So, in your scenario, the cost to attend per year would be around $7,000.

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      • Joe J says:

        And what about loans?
        Sounds too much like a car sale where sure the sticker price is 20,000, and you can haggle it down to 18,000. But the financers are saying you only pay $100, Hiding the other 17,900 in loans. Which I would call very deceitful.
        Or are you claiming that someone claiming high middle class income and good savings would get a 90% discount off the price for some reason.

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    • Phil says:

      Stuck with? That’s a curious phrase to use.

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  3. Redlefty says:

    By “financial aid” do they mean loans, grants, scholarships or all of the above?

    Grants and scholarships are great, but loans merely defer payment and do nothing to decrease the actual sticker price.

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  4. Paul in VA says:

    Paying for college has got to be the closest thing we have to socialism in this country, and I cannot understand how it is even legal to structure thier cost in this way.

    The cost of college is purposely set by colleges with the INTENT of being unaffordable for the majority of people. That way the college can say, “Show me all your financial records and I will tell you how much my product will cost you”. Can you imagine going to the car dealer and showing him your mortgage, and your checking acct, savings account, and investments and then having him determine how much the car you want will cost you because it is what HE THINKS you should be able to afford. ITS INSANE! And the next guy who walks in will pay less, or More, depending upon what the car dealership thinks?

    Further, in what way does a college have the right to REQUIRE financial assistance for a Child from thier parents? My son is 20 years old. He is an adult in every way and responsible for all his own decisions and debts, EXCEPT paying for college. With college, MY FINANCES are considered HIS Finances. But because of “Privacy issues” the college will not allow a parent to be sent grades or health records, etc… of a student unless specifically approved by the student. The message from colleges to parents is little more than “Open your wallet, Sit in the corner, and Shut up”.

    All this greatly benefits colleges and greatly disservices the citizens. Colleges charge more and more with high paid professors focused on research, travel, and grants while under-skilled Assistants teaching your kids in seminar classes of 150+ . Assuming a $40,000.00 tuition, this will cost you $285 PER DAY, assuming your kid takes classes Monday-Friday. Its INSANE and seems like it could not continue,… But it does.

    Grants from Government or any other place do NOT HELP. They actually hurt. Colleges will gobble up everything. If the Gov’t grants you a 5,000 tax break for tuition, Great, that’s 5,000 more the school calculates that you can afford.

    How is this shell game legal?

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    • Dwight K Schrute says:

      the only thing to top that is the balance of a college’s expenses on administration vs classroom.
      there seems a trend towards more admin and less classroom
      my son is a freshman at a major state school
      so far, his experience is as follows:
      one of the math classes is all e-learning with a TA who admitted he’s not good with math, so there’s not even a big lecture hall with a disinterested professor.
      There is a whole department dedicated to the move-in day however.
      Yes, I’m a happy parent

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    • Enter your name... says:

      The college can’t and doesn’t actually “require” you do pay for your son’s college. They can, and do, only refuse to provide financial assistance with the amount that they believe you are able to pay. Thousands of students every year have to resort to third-party loans and heavy workloads, or drop out entirely, because their school expects their parents to pay a certain amount, and the parents refuse to do so.

      The kids who have my sympathy are the ones who don’t know how to contact a parent due to being abandoned years before. The colleges all expect every student to be able to find both parents and convince both of them to submit financial information. This is a problem for nasty divorce cases, but it’s a disaster if your best guess about mom or dad’s whereabouts is “last seen months ago at a homeless shelter on the other side of the country”. There are kids who actually qualify for full, free rides but can’t get it because they can’t find a missing parent before the deadline.

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  5. Voice of Reason says:

    Maybe instead of heavily subsidizing college education, the government should focus on creating 13 year public school programs that can adequately prepare 18 year olds for life and entry level work, instead of seeing their failed schools as mulligans and expecting college to pick up the slack.

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  6. Enter your name... says:

    I wish that there were a unified system run through the FAFSA website. It’s already got all of the information. The colleges would just need to add their typical formula. You’d get accurate answers and cover more options than the simplistic “both parents alive and still married to each other” scenario that is the only thing some schools offer on their own.

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  7. mannyv says:

    I love how they say “your contribution,” as if we’re in this together.

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