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How to Estimate College Costs

Going back to school? Count the cost


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One of the most frustrating parts of returning to college — or going the first time — is figuring out what it will cost. You can look up cost of attendance, or sticker price, on any college website easily enough. But many applicants don’t pay sticker price, particularly at private colleges, because students are awarded grants or scholarships.

The trick is figuring out which colleges will cough up enough money for your family’s bottom line, because not every college does. It’s possible to get estimates ahead of time, but you won’t know the final price until you get your final financial aid letter, probably not until spring.

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Depending on whether you’re a parent helping your high school senior or you’re returning for a degree, the college landscape varies quite a bit. If you already have a bachelor’s, federal student loans and possibly a teacher or research assistantship (for graduate degrees) are your main funding resources. Older first-time students will find that resources for traditionally aged (18-19) students are available to you too, though you’re probably not exploring small private colleges and their scholarship potential like a high school senior might.

Complicating this fall’s applications, the 2024-25 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) doesn’t become available until the end of December 2023 (this year only) due to its recent significant overhaul. As a result, getting good cost estimates may be more difficult.

Luckily, the new financial aid formula means more students will qualify for Pell Grants, which are usually reserved for undergraduate students with exceptional financial need. It also increases the amount of income protected from the formula, which particularly benefits independent students and students who have kids. Other families with high schoolers going to college, including those with multiple students in college or who own a farm or small business, could face increased costs.

For AARP parents sending teens to college, “This year, more than ever, it’s going to be really important to have a balanced college list,” says Shannon Vasconcelos, senior director of college finance at Bright Horizons College Coach. Because most college resources are geared toward high schoolers going to college, older students may find the information-gathering more difficult.

Here’s what else you can do.

Learn what different types of colleges cost

It’s worth exploring the difference between in-state universities and out-of-state public universities (check out those with regional tuition reciprocity agreements), along with available state scholarships or need-based aid for resident students. Combined with the lower tuition at in-state schools, something like Georgia’s Hope Scholarship or California’s Middle Class Scholarship could reduce your costs quite a bit. Older students should also look for alternative state scholarships and programs, like Indiana’s Adult Student Grant. But don’t write off private colleges or out-of-state universities just yet.

Understand how colleges give money

Some schools award generous merit aid for certain grades and test scores, while other competitive colleges, like the Ivies, only give need-based aid, and still others don’t give much of anything. Popular state flagships like the University of Colorado Boulder don’t need to entice students with generous merit packages, known as “tuition discounts” in the college world.

With some 4,000 colleges to choose from, finding an affordable college for your financial profile can feel overwhelming. Figure out your Student Aid Index (SAI) first, says Paul Martin, owner of College Money Method. Formerly called the Estimated Family Contribution, your SAI measures “demonstrated need,” how much federal financial aid you qualify for, and also tells colleges what you should be able to contribute. (The lower your SAI, the greater your need for aid.) The FAFSA generates your SAI, but you can estimate it in advance with the Department of Education’s federal Student Aid Estimator.

“I call the SAI your ‘calculated ability to pay’,” Martin says. “It gives you some idea of how much financial aid eligibility you have.” Experts say knowing your SAI is useful because it tells you what kinds of colleges are best to apply to — like those meets-need schools, or, if you aren’t eligible for need-based aid, colleges that give merit aid for certain grades and test scores.

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It’s important to understand that even if you have a low SAI, most colleges don’t offer enough money to meet all your demonstrated financial needs, says Ann Garcia, certified financial planner and author of How to Pay for College. “Colleges are under no obligation to meet your need.” 

Besides the federal government calculating eligibility for federal aid (primarily the Pell Grant and federal student loans), colleges use your SAI to calculate state and institutional aid, but the federal estimator won’t tell you this information. That’s the job of college net price calculators (NPCs).

Hop on the net price calculators

Now that you know how much or little financial aid eligibility you have, it’s time to use the college NPCs, which are required for most schools. Unfortunately, they haven’t been updated yet to reflect the new FAFSA formula. That doesn’t mean they’re useless, but “don’t get too attached to the results,” Vasconcelos says. “But for a lot of families, it’s going to get you in the right ballpark.”

For the 250 or so colleges that also use the CSS Profile (a second and more detailed financial aid form some schools use to award institutional grants and scholarships), their NPC may more accurately estimate institutional aid because the CSS Profile financial aid formula isn’t changing much. The FAFSA-only schools, particularly higher-priced private colleges, may be trickier.

Other schools, like community colleges and your local or regional state university, may be easier to predict, particularly if their websites list automatic scholarships for certain grades and test scores.   

Try these other tools

Not all NPCs were accurate even before the new FAFSA formula complicated this fall’s process. Experts still recommend starting with them, but you can try other tools in tandem. No tool provides everything you need, so using multiple tools might be the way to go. They use the same public data from the federal government, but they present it in different ways.

Garcia recommends the free CollegeData tool and College Navigator. Or try College Aid Pro, which has free and paid versions. Another free resource to compare schools is the Department of Education’s College Scorecard.

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As an alternative to College Navigator, search “common data set” and enter a college name to learn various institutional characteristics, including average test scores for merit aid and how many students receive financial need-based aid. Compare this information across schools. It’s not an easy task, but you can learn a lot about financial aid.

If the DIY approach feels like too much, you can learn a lot about different schools through Road2College’s College Insights tool, and the associated parent Facebook page, Paying for College 101. Martin offers online workshops for a fee on his website, and Garcia offers a college financial plan master class. Grown & Flown also offers workshops with experts for a fee. For older students, the Department of Education has a checklist designed just for you.

For more about college, The Truth About College Admission hosts a free podcast addressing multiple topics. 

Look for free resources at your teen’s high school, like FAFSA workshops, and community organizations that work with first-generation or low-income kids — the high school college guidance counselor should know about anything in your area. Alternatively, search for FAFSA completion events through your state’s higher education agency or a community college.

Spearhead the money conversation

As your family starts to zoom in on what you could be on the hook for, be sure to talk about money. “Before kids get too far into the application process, it’s really important to have a conversation about what level of financial support you’re able to provide and what your expectations of your student are,” says Garcia. If you’re returning to college — or starting late — you’ll have to have the same talk with your spouse.

Look at all potential sources of college funds, including student work contribution, federal student loan, savings and income. You may have more available for college than you think.

What else families should know

The new FAFSA treats families with multiple students in college differently from the old FAFSA. The SAI no longer divides in half with two kids in college. Your SAI may be lower than your old EFC, but you can expect to add two of them together for two students. The exception: The CSS Profile schools and possibly FAFSA-only private colleges may still give increased financial aid if your student has a younger sib going to college.

If you have an enrolled college student and they receive financial aid, contact that school’s financial aid office and ask what changes you should expect to your financial aid package for next year, Garcia says.

Martin recommends families create their FAFSA (FSA) ID now, both parent (a.k.a. “contributor” on the new form) and student. Everyone needs this ID to fill out the FAFSA. It’s a bit more cumbersome than in years past and will require more communication, particularly for separated/divorced families living in different locations. Also, make sure you have all your tax information at hand.

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