Why Students Have No Idea How Much College Costs

At 23, Jason Comfort wishes he could move out of his parent’s house. He’s landed a full-time job and is earning a steady paycheck. He’s even willing to take on a roommate -- or two or three.

But there’s one thing holding him back: his student-loan debt.

“My student-loan debt is enormous; I can’t make it happen. I had no idea when I was applying to college how this was going to impact my future. I feel like I am being left behind as all my friends move out on their own.”

Comfort graduated in 2013 from Michigan State with a civil engineering degree and has been working at his “dream job” since getting is diploma.

He has at least $160,000 in student loans.

He considered taking on part-time work on the weekends to help reduce his debt load, but with the Fundamentals of Engineering exam coming up April, he needs to study.

“I expected to pay a lot, especially coming out of state, but the realization of just exactly how much money I owe limits what I can do."

As the price of college continues to outpace the rise in inflation, many students and their families are making tuition costs a top priority in the application process. But getting an accurate sense of how much a diploma is going to cost can be hard to do.

“Families are not fully aware of the rate of growth of tuition," says Eric Greenberg, director of Greenberg Educational Group. “They view it like other commodities where there is tremendous price competition, but in reality, the education world functions very differently and parents aren’t taking into account those 2% to 3% increases that happen almost every year.”

Colleges are highly subsidized, adds Justin Draeger, president of The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “State and federal appropriations, institutional aid and alumni donations make up the bulk of their funding and they can change at any time and affect the prices students and parents pay.”

According to the College Board, the tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year colleges increased 2.9% for the 2013-14 school year, following a 4.5% jump the year before.

Getting a good sense of the cost of a higher education has improved since 2009 legislation required each school to provide a Net Price Calculator (NPC). NPCs are online questionnaires that ask questions like ethnicity, citizenship, grade point average and standardize test scores to provide an accurate price, says Mary Fallon, a spokesperson for Student Aid Services.

While these calculators are a step in the right direction, they still fall short of providing an accurate figure, says Sally Rubenstone, senior advisor at College Confidential. “It’s like the heart-rate monitor on the treadmill at the gym -- no one is going to adjust their medication based on the number it provides, but it will get them in the ballpark and tell them they need to work harder.”

When going through the college application process, students should ask schools about their financial aid practices and whether the amount of aid remains steady over their time on campus if their financial situation stays consistent. “Many schools ‘front load’ their financial aid packages, giving a student a nice package as a freshman and then come sophomore year, that money disappears,” says Rubenstone.

Comfort recommends perspective students talk to alumni to get a sense of how much more money they dished out to attend a school. “Talk to the people who have lived through it to get a better sense of what they paid compared to what the website says you will pay. I wish someone would have told me I would have been paying so much.”

Once acceptance letters star rolling in, Rubenstone recommends parents compare aid packages against other schools and see how much money is coming from a grant and what is considered a loan.  She adds that just because a student is entitled to receive a certain amount of aid, doesn’t mean a school will provide it. “Many colleges practice need gapping, which is them saying 'you qualify for $30,000 but we can only give you $20,000' so it’s time to hit up Uncle Harry, get some scholarships or take out more loans.”

Families also need to take into account money from work-study programs and scholarships that could help mitigate costs.

More schools have started offering fixed-rate plans that promise a freeze tuition costs for a set amount of years, but it’s far from common. “Families need to review how much tuition has increased at a school over the last decade and expect that trend to continue and take that into account when determining if they can afford  a school,” suggests Greenberg.

Other costs like travel, campus culture, books (which is about $1,200 a year, according to U.S. PIRG) can sometimes double the cost of attending a school. “Airfare, wardrobe, dorm essentials and things like lab costs can easily add $10,000 to a school’s price,” says Rubenstone.

But as Draeger points out, students play a major role in how much college ends up costing. “Where and how you live, eat and go out are in their control.”