Start Gathering College Cost Data Early

Don’t Wait Until Your Student’s Heart is Set To Learn It Costs Too Much

It’s a sad story which happens all too often in the college decision-making process. A high school junior visits a prospective college’s website or participates in a campus tour, and absolutely falls in love with the institution. He or she then proceeds to beg, plead, cajole, wheedle and implore the parents to find a way to pay for a school which has turned into the “one and only” possibility.

The parents, on the other hand, try to take a more pragmatic approach.

Certainly they want their little angel to be happy, but there is only so much money to go around for all of the family’s expenses. And thus the big debate begins. Part of the problem stems from the fact that parents aren’t always upfront with their children about college budgets. They don’t set financial parameters, and allow too much time to go by before putting down their financial foot.

One way to avoid all this drama is to create a “pros and cons” sheet for each potential college. It can include everything that appeals to the student, plus all of the factors that are important to the parents. One big part of this comparison is the cost factor. You can search on each college’s individual website but, in order to get reliable information, families can also consult the unbiased College Scorecard, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Education, ED. This was redesigned in September 2015, and the ED continues to make updates and revisions based on user input.

Each year it is updated with the latest available data. The next update is scheduled for the beginning of summer 2016.

The Scorecard is a treasure trove of information on colleges, as well as more than 700 certificate-granting institutions. Instead of gathering incomplete information from various sources, this one database includes all of the information needed to learn about a particular institution’s student body, cost estimates, and a nationally comparable database on post-college earnings.

It is also important to look for “red flags” (or Heightened Cash Monitoring) for schools that may be facing financial or federal compliance issues. The Scorecard provides comparison data based on criteria selected by the user:

  • Programs/Degrees: Select from two or four year, or any, and then narrow down your choices by program type. “Any” is also an option here if your student has not yet decided on a particular field of study. This might make a difference in your student’s future earnings potential, which could impact your decisions on costs and student loan borrowing.
  • Location: Sometimes a student or parent has a definite geographic preference. Users can narrow choices down by state, geographic area, or a specific zip code with a defined mile radius. Travel can be an expensive factor to take into consideration, especially if your student will travel home three to four times each year.
  • Size: What size college would your student be comfortable attending? Search by small, medium or large student body size.
  • Name: If you have the name of a particular institution you want to add to the list, just type it into the search box and get all the necessary information in a predefined format that’s easy to compare to other results.
  • Advanced: Other search options include type of school, specialized mission, and religious affiliation to meet the particular demands of your student.

Being the government, of course, the site also has information on federal financial aid programs to help in the cost calculation process. Links are available for information on types of financial aid, calculating aid, and GI Bill benefits. There is a lot of information to mull over that is both emotional and financial. You will need open and honest discussions with your student to decide which factors are most important to your family.

The best approach is to gather as much information as possible before your students gets set on a college. Don’t go into the college selection process with high hopes and closed eyes. A little research about the cold, hard facts now will save an awful lot of drama later.