Thursday, September 19, 2013

Getting a Clearer Picture of College Costs.


For high-achieving, low-income students, some of the cheapest places to attend college are the ones with the highest list prices. Thanks to their endowments, these elite colleges often award large scholarships to poor and even many middle-class students. For example, despite Harvard’s published annual cost of about $60,000, parents of Harvard students making less than $65,000 are expected to make no contribution; parents making $65,000 to $150,000 typically pay no more than 10 percent of their income.

But elite colleges have not been especially effective about spreading the word about the real cost of enrollment. Many low-income families imagine Harvard – or Pomona, Haverford, Wellesley and dozens of other colleges – to be beyond their financial reach. A recent study found that most low-income students with the academic record to be admitted to such colleges never even apply.

On Wednesday, Wellesley College is unveiling a new cost-of-college calculator intended to demystify the real cost of tuition. Officially, the calculator applies only to Wellesley. Yet financial-aid policies are similar enough across elite colleges that the calculator will offer a rough estimate of how much families would pay to attend any one of dozens of such colleges.

“The conversation that takes place around college costs is largely misguided,” says Phillip B. Levine, a professor of economics at the college, who developed the calculator. “People focus only on the sticker price. The sticker price is a meaningful statistic for roughly 40 percent of our students. The majority of our students are receiving financial aid, and for them the sticker price is an irrelevant number.”

If list-price tuition rose 10 percent from one year to the next but a family’s income did not change, Mr. Levine explained, that family’s expected contribution would remain essentially unchanged as well.

Wellesley’s calculator is not the first one. The College Board also has one, as does Harvard. But Wellesley’s version is the simplest I have seen – which means it is the least likely to scare away families who may already be intimidated by college costs.

Wellesley – the alma mater of Hillary Rodham Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Nora Ephron and more recently Robin Chase, a founder of Zipcar – asks families for only nine pieces of information. They are: the students’ citizenship status; family living arrangement; number of siblings simultaneously in college; annual family income; approximate value of home; size of remaining mortgage; amount of retirement savings; amount of cash savings; amount of other investment holdings. (Retirement savings are excluded from the financial aid calculation, but Wellesley asks for them so people do not mistakenly list their retirement savings as part of their other investments.)

With this data, the calculator then spits out an estimated parental contribution, as well as a range in which the final contribution is likely to fall. I entered a series of numbers for a fictional married couple earning $85,000, with no other children in college, and the estimate was $11,000 – with a likely range of $6,000 on the low end and $16,000 on the high end. By comparison, Wellesley’s published annual cost, including tuition, room, board and fees, is $57,042.

Mr. Levine said he recently watched a group of parents and students try a test version of the calculator while visiting campus – and he was thrilled to see how many seemed surprised at the discount they were likely to receive.

The biggest strength of the calculator is its simplicity. For a family that knows its financial information, receiving an estimate can take as little as one minute. The College Board’s calculator, on the other hand, requires people to register by name. Wellesley already enrolls a larger percentage of low-income students than many other top colleges, and it’s possible that the calculator may help it enroll more.

The biggest drawback of the new calculator, to my mind, is the fact that it offers a somewhat too rosy picture of college costs. How? The calculator does not count student loans (of up to $3,000 a year at Wellesley) or work-study wages (of up to $2,500 a year) as part of a family’s contribution. Instead, it counts only the money that parents pay, not money that students themselves pay.

Nearly all financial-aid students at Wellesley have work-study jobs, and about 75 percent have a student loan. To be fully accurate, then, the $11,000 estimate for my fictional family should probably be closer to $16,000.

Once you know this weakness with the calculator, you can take it into account, simply by adding $5,000 to the final estimate. (And maybe Wellesley will fix the problem at some point, or another college will create a calculator that does.)

The larger point is that Wellesley’s calculator is a significant step in the growing effort to spread accurate information about college costs. As Mr. Levine says, the widespread misunderstanding of tuition “closes a door to people that shouldn’t be closed.”