When I worked in admissions and financial aid, I’d often be contacted by families asking if we would match a scholarship offer from another college. Not every college has the same budget for financial aid, nor do they have the same tuition costs. I’d encourage families to let me do a net price comparison for them. They could then see the bottom line costs at all schools. They could then factor in the true costs as they decided which was the best option for their child.
Colleges, and the government, use a lot of terms. A term you will hear a lot is “Cost of Attendance (COA)”. The federal department of education allows colleges to list a cost of attendance that includes tuition, room and board, and other costs they estimate like transportation to and from campus, miscellaneous fees, personal expenses (ie: toiletries). Not every school includes the same things in their cost of attendance.
Mandatory fees are fees a college or university charges all students such as an activity fee or a technology fee. Optional fees are fees students are charged for specific classes or services such as a parking fee or a lab fee for a biology class. I don’t typically compare optional fees as they vary from school to school.
Instead of using the cost of attendance, I look up the actual costs of tuition, housing, meal plans, and fees to make sure I’m using the most similar data. It’s important to compare apples to apples–some schools might have multiple meal plan options. Some may charge different amounts for different housing (suites, apartments, single rooms). The cost of attendance at once school might be an average while the other school uses actual numbers.
You can easily make your own net price comparison spreadsheet. Create a column for each school, input the costs for tuition, housing, meal plans, and mandatory fees. Total those costs. Subtract any aid from the total costs–listing out merit scholarships, federal grants, state grants, work-study and student loans. You will be left with your unmet need/out of pocket costs. Below is a basic example, you could add any lines you need for additional school specific need-based grants.
|College A||College B||College C||College D|
|Tuition full-time 15-19 credit hours||11220||30,100||35000|
|standard meal plan||6000||5500||6000|
|any mandatory fees||500||250||500|
|Merit scholarship Total||5000||23000||25000|
|Federal Direct Subsidized Loan||2500||2500||2500|
|Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan||3000||3000||3000|
|Parent Plus Loan||0||0|
|remaining unmet need||10890||11350||15000||0|
Sometimes a private school maybe less expensive or close to the same cost as a state school, after scholarships. Sometimes the larger scholarship is from a school with a larger tuition–making the smaller scholarship still a better deal. If costs at two schools are similar, but one has offered significantly more aid, I’d let the other school know. They might increase the scholarship to be competitive. I’d only do it if its your top choice and you are willing to attend if they make the increase. Many schools will not negotiate this way, so be prepared for a no.
Most schools will offer a payment plan to let you cover costs over a 9 or 10 month period (otherwise you typically have two payments–one for fall and one for spring). Parents can also borrow a parent plus loan up to the cost of attendance of a college. Discuss as a family what can you afford to pay for tuition annually. Think about expenses you will no longer have once your child heads to college–fees you pay for their clubs/sports/lessons, groceries if they are now eating at school, utilities if they are no longer at home–can that be applied to tuition costs? What have you saved for their education and how much can you use each year? What do you typically spend on vacations a year? Will anything be paid off like a car or credit card that will allow you to redirect those funds towards tuition?
I don’t recommend picking a school solely on cost. You want your child to be happy and succeed. But if they are excited to attend all schools, and one is obviously a better financial option–comparing bottom line costs can help you with the decision.
Finally, look at the schools’ four year graduation rate. You want to make sure your child will finish in 4 years. The added tuition, room and board, and book costs for 4.5 years or 5 years is a major factor to consider when weighing bottom line costs. They will also be losing a semester or a year of salary if they are in school an additional year. On-time graduation has significant return on investment.
If you would like help understanding your financial aid package or need advice on how to talk to a financial aid office, feel free to reach out to Coffman Consulting for assistance.