By CHAD TERHUNE
Talk about some tough homework. When it comes to deciding which college is most affordable, parents can spend days trying to add up all the hidden costs of matriculating (did anyone remember that 24-hour cereal bar?) and figuring out whether their kids are eligible for any financial aid. Enter the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 specifically, a little-noticed part of that giant bill, which goes into effect this fall and requires about 7,000 colleges to start fessing up on the "net price" of getting a degree from their esteemed halls.
The law requires colleges to do the very thing that ought to give the whole process some transparency: post online calculators that spell out all the costs, from tuition and books to room and board, and then guide students on what grants and scholarships they can get. "People are fumbling in the dark," says Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit advocacy group in Oakland, Calif. "Net-price calculators turn the light on." To their credit, some colleges have had calculators on their websites for years. But critics say that somewhere along the line, many have become muddled in a variety of ways.
Sometimes, just finding the tool can be tricky. While Cornell places it in a pretty obvious place on its site under the "undergraduate financial aid" tab in the "admissions" section the University of Utah buries it at the bottom of its financial aid page under "other." (The University of Utah says the school will launch a redesigned website this fall with the calculator highlighted.)
What's more troubling, critics say, is that some schools have made their net figures look better by subtracting loans from the cost, when ultimately, of course, they are part of the out-of-pocket total. The Institute for College Access & Success tested 16 calculators and found many problems. One example: The online calculator of Westminster College, a liberal arts school in Salt Lake City, came up with a net figure of $33,170 after subtracting $6,000 in scholarships, but it also showed a net price of zero after loans and work study. Asher says many families may not realize the bulk of the aid is coming from loans. But Sean View, Westminster College director of financial aid, says the school's calculator clearly marks how much aid comes from loans. "We want to show people how to get the net price down to zero with these financing options," View says.
For parents, the obvious step is to use the calculators but take them with a grain of salt. Most colleges' sites have a long list of questions about family assets and test scores, which can seem tedious to go through. But Linda Maguire, vice chairperson of research firm Maguire Associates, suggests wading through it all to get the most accurate estimates. "There is a range remember, these are estimates, not a promise," she says.