I don’t know about you, but I’m always leery when the price of a good or service I’m considering purchasing isn’t readily available. The phrase, “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it” starts echoing in my head. However, although most college websites don’t have their costs readily accessible, it doesn’t seem to be an issue for most people. I have to admit, I didn’t really start noticing it until I start writing this post.
But once you start paying attention, you realize that the “admissions” or “new student” sections of college websites contain financial aid information, not tuition, not the total cost of attendance, or any other kind of actual college costs. Schools are eager to let families know who much aid they distribute and the average amounts but nowhere do they provide information on how much students paid after receiving all of that aid.
There are several arguments to be made in the schools’ defense. The first is that few students actually pay the full price so why should they scare off potential students before they have had the chance to provide them with the information on what makes their schools affordable? Why indeed.
Many schools would point to their net price calculators (NPC) which are often available on the financial aid information page as a way for students to get a better idea of how much they would pay. A good NPC provides better information to families than a single cost of attendance number. Good is the operative word.
All of this is true. But the fact remains that just about every college websites is designed for the user to focus on the potential experience and benefits, not the actual cost. Even state institutions which are more likely to list their tuition rates seldom put up a total cost of attendance number. Instead, you get semester tuition totals based on the minimum number of hours to be considered a full-time student which usually is not the same number required to graduate in four years.
Yet the reality is that every year, the school is going to expect the student to pay a very specific amount of money to attend the school. Families need to know this amount. If you don’t know this number, you can’t apply Moneyball’s third rule to college admissions:
“Know exactly what every player in baseball is worth to you. You can put a dollar figure on it.”
The same is true of college costs. Now the number the school is going to charge you isn’t necessarily the same thing as what attending the school is worth to you. Knowing the price is a way to start identifying the actual value provided by the institution.
For example, for one person the $59,908 total cost of attendance at Emory University may offer more value than the $24,024 it would cost to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill even without financial aid. Going to a school that doesn’t offer your major or reduces your chances of graduating could also account for price differences.
The point is that you should be able to list the specific factors that make the $35,000 difference worth it. Unfortunately, too many people are too willing to classify the differences as intangibles that will pay off in the long run.
Before you settle for expecting a name to guarantee your future, you should at least attempt to get some perspective on those costs. The most immediate thing to do is to use a student loan calculator to estimate your payments. One of the most useful calculators is the debt/salary wizard at Mapping Your Future.org. You can enter numbers to figure out how much you can afford to borrow based on a salary or how much you need to earn to support your student debt.
Once you have these numbers, you should visit the Occupational Outlook website to get a sense of starting salaries in the industries you’re interested. Start looking at average car payments and apartment rents.
If you aren’t going to need loans to pay for college, then you need to start looking at opportunity costs. Which would be more valuable to you, spending an extra $120,000 over four years for an undergraduate degree or use the money to help pay for graduate school, or a car, or a down payment on a house?
Naturally, the value will depend on each student’s and family’s situation and no one can really put an absolute value on a college education. Yet, the schools themselves will certainly be putting a dollar sign on the value of the education–you should do the same. If you find yourself reluctant or unwilling to compare costs before applying, you are certainly violating the Moneyball rules and may end up paying more for college because of it. Hopefully, it’s a difference that you can afford.