Paying for College

A Cool College-Cost Tool

Have you ever heard that old joke:

Question: What’s the most dreaded statement you’ll ever hear?

Answer: “Hi, I’m from the government and I’m here to help!”


I’m sure that we all can point to myriad examples of the dreaded “help” the government (local, state, or Federal) has given. However, I discovered one example of Federal government help that could (with a few caveats (see below)) actually be beneficial to families who are in the college search and admissions barrel these days.

It’s called the College Affordability and Transparency Center. Don’t let the name fool you. There’s some down-to-earth, downright helpful information on this site. Check out these categories:

 

Use the options below to generate a report on the highest (top 5%) and lowest (bottom 10%) academic year charges for each sector. Tuition reports include tuition and required fees. Net price is cost of attendance minus grant and scholarship aid. Data are reported by institutions and are for full-time beginning students.

 

Select a type of institution below to see which ones have the highest increases in tuition and fees and net prices (cost of attendance after grant and scholarship aid). Data are for full-time beginning undergraduate students.

Begin typing the name of a program (for example, “Cosmetology”) to generate a list of institutions that offer the program and the tuition and net prices they charge for the entire program. Data are reported by institutions on their largest program and are for full-time beginning undergraduate students. Not all institutions offering these vocational programs are included on this list. For a full list of institutions offering a program, go to College Navigator and search by program/major.

This is the kind of information families need. Perhaps one of the more creative applications of the CAATC would be to first figure out how much your family can afford to pay each year for your son’s or daughter’s college education. Then, using the CAATC’s net-price search, identify those schools that fall into your affordability zone.

Once you have a list of those schools, you can then cross-correlate those schools with your favorite rankings resource to see which ones offer the best return on investment for your hard-earned dollars.

 

What do others think of the CAATC? Let’s take a look.

The Association for Institutional Research (AIR) did a review of the CAATC last year. They posted the results on their Web page. Here are some highlights from that review.

In June, the U.S. Department of Education released the 2013 College Affordability and Transparency List. The list features institutions with the highest and lowest tuitions and net prices in the U.S. and highlights increases in college costs. The data include “full-time beginning students” and are available to the public for free. Users can explore the information by sector, browse lists of institutions with increases and decreases in the cost of attendance, and learn about the cost of vocational programs.  

In a recent AIR survey, 48% of respondents noted that they are very or somewhat familiar with the College Affordability and Transparency List, 33% are not familiar with it, and 20% have never heard of it. 

In terms of usefulness for students and families:

  • 4% of respondents think the data are very useful,
  • 38% think they are moderately or somewhat useful,
  • 27% think they are not useful, and
  • 31% do not know. 

When asked about the list’s impact on decisions at their institutions:

  • 24% of respondents think it has high or some impact,
  • 38% think it has no impact, and
  • 31% are unsure. 

Respondents who offered comments about the list expressed frustration with it. Of particular concern is that the list features tuition figures without relevant contexts, such as the complex ways in which institutions are funded. Also, the list is not paired with information about the value of higher education. Furthermore, respondents explained that many public consumers of these data may not understand that the list reflects only first-time full-time students and what that means in terms of definition and applicability. Concern about an institution’s presence on the list varies—it is not desirable to be on the list, but the one-size-fits-all approach leads some higher education professionals to question its value.    

The list is housed in the College Affordability and Transparency Center, which also includes the College Scorecard, College Navigator, and information about proprietary schools, net price calculators, and state spending on higher education.

Some interesting comments:

– I can see the impact being the greatest for those schools showing up on the list. If you are not deemed one of the highest or lowest I think other factors will be a larger influence on a student’s college decision.

– The frustration of users coming as a result of the one-size-fits-all approach is a cause of concern. A lot of institutions ranking top as “highest increase” in tuition “make” it on the list because of very low starting/base tuition levels. I see how this can me difficult to interpret and not very useful to consumers of this information.

– Making it onto the list for highest increase can be misleading, especially when the cost of tuition is still one of the lowest in the state in which an institution is located. All the facts behind the data are not communicated, simply a percentage increase.

– The mini survey results are really striking for me. First, I could see any AIR member being asked to explain what this list means to a president/provost/board member who saw this in a some news report. That so many respondents couldn’t report familiarity shows both the need for always learning and working to stay up to date and how hard it is to do that when the workload is large and growing.

Secondly, the fact that only 4% of very informed members think these data have merit should tell news reporters why they shouldn’t make the list “headline” news. It is amazing to me that AIR members have been pretty vocal about the weaknesses of the various commercial rating systems and yet have been mostly silent about this one.

There is a doctoral dissertation just waiting to be written using these data and the “real story” behind them.

– This reminds me of some re-occurring conversations I have had with my institution’s administration. We submit and receive data on the national level, state level, and internally, and depending on the topic there might be different answers to the same question. For example, many people are concerned, and rightfully so, about enrollment and retention. If I respond with IPEDS/College Navigator data, then that information will be different from the state level data or the internal data because they measure slightly different variables. I am glad that there is concern about transparency in higher education, and one excellent way to promote transparency is through publicly accessible data. However, not everybody who uses the Scorecard, Navigator, and other national data sources really understands what the numbers represent.

Here are the results in case you’re interested in what the full sample of the survey showed.

***

So there you have it … the College Affordability and Transparency Center. Check it out (keeping in mind the above cautionary notes) and see if it will help you in your family’s college quest. The money you save may be your own.

**********

Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on College Confidential.