Experts: Online tuition price confuses prospective students, leads to fewer applicants

One professor says a new calculator tool can clear it up

Low-income, high-ability students often do not apply to prestigious colleges because the real cost of attendance is not clear, reports Danielle Paquette for the Washington Post.

Between 25,000 and 35,000 low-income students sit among the top 10% of U.S. high-schoolers, according to a study from the Brookings Institution. Many of those individuals, unsure of the aid package they will receive, think they cannot afford tuition at prestigious institutions.

"This is despite the fact that selective institutions typically cost them less, owing to generous financial aid, than the two-year and nonselective four-year institutions to which they actually apply," write co-authors Christopher Avery, a Harvard University public policy professor, and Caroline Hoxby, a Stanford University economics professor.

Marianne Hetzer, director of Building Better Futures, a financial aid tutoring service, attributes this mismatch to a cultural misconception that public schools are always less expensive.

Building pathways for low-income, high-ability students

The sticker price at many private institutions drives students away, experts say. According to the College Board, last year's average list price for private, non-profit four-year institutions' tuition, fees, and room and board, was $40,920.

However, after aid and grants, the estimated net price was about half that: only $23,290.

Confusing tools

The federal government created tools to inform students as to what they can and cannot afford, but they are often difficult to apply to one individual's situation, argues Phillip Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley College, in a Brookings Institution paper.

Related: How streamlining scholarship allocation can help recruitment

The Department of Education lists the most and least expensive schools each year, and the College Navigator shows on average the amount students from various financial statuses pay at various colleges.

In August, College Navigator showed Wellesley's price for low-income students had tripled over the past few years. But those numbers had been skewed, says Levine. The majority of students from households making less than $30,000 a year pay about a tenth of the $50,000 list price. But a small group does pay full tuition, which altered the results.

Levine says such students came from "unusual situations," such as having parents with large assets, but who are retired—i.e. have no income.

To solve the issue, Wellesley created its own tuition calculator that provides individually tailored aid estimates. The number of applicants jumped 20% after launching it, says Levine, who has urged for a similar version to be available nationally.

"Don't stop when you see the sticker price. Get started early. Understand all your options," Levine encourages students (Paquette, Washington Post, 11/12).

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