Wednesday’s Parent: Formula and tools to calculate college costs

Formula and tools to calculate college costs. Photo by Wendy David-Gaines

Formula and tools to calculate college costs. Photo by Wendy David-Gaines

How much will college cost you, exactly? There’s a big range between the most expensive private colleges (over $65,000) and the least expensive public universities (under $10,000) or community colleges (some states’ free tuition proposals). There are plenty of hidden costs that families should know to prevent nasty financial surprises. Because of need-based and merit financial aid awarded to admitted students, college sticker price is rarely what the college bill will be. Fortunately, there are tools to help families estimate costs.


Predicting total college costs depend on what expenses are included. The government and colleges have agreed on this formula for Cost of Attendance (COA):

COA = tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, transportation and personal expenses

Unfortunately, COA doesn’t tell the whole story. There are hidden costs so I came up with this more realistic accounting:

POCS COA = COA + start-up costs + program expenses + parent travel expenses + borrowing costs

POCS COA includes start-up costs like setting up a dorm room, program expenses for those with more costly textbooks and/or special equipment, parent costs because their costs such as for meals, lodging, gas, plane tickets are never considered and neither are student and parent borrowing costs including interest and fees. Check my website for more details.

Calculator tools

Business Insider recently featured 8 Tools To Help Estimate What College Will CostIt’s always wise to check the source sites first. To calculate federal aid that flows from the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), use FAFSA4caster for eligibility and Expected Family Contribution (EFC) to college costs. Try the federal College Scorecard for information colleges must report like loan default rates and links to a college’s own website for its Net Price Calculator (NPC). The NPC roughly estimates the difference between sticker price less grants and scholarships for which students may be eligible to receive. Since free money from a college’s own funds may also be given to entice students to attend and who a college wants most depends on the entire applicant pool for that year, it is hard to be accurate. The NPC institutions report can also be found via the federal College Affordability and Transparency lists along with how costs are changing from year to year.

Those planning on taking out federal student loans to help pay for college can use the federal Repayment Estimator to estimate the loan payments under various repayment plans. It’s important info to help students plan for an affordable lifestyle after graduation.

Read Suzanne’s post: Talking to Your Kids About Financing College



Wednesday’s child may be full of woe but Wednesday’s Parent can substitute action for anxiety. Each Wednesday Suzanne Shaffer and I will provide parent tips to get and keep your student on the college track. It’s never too late or too early to start!

Suzanne and I host Twitter chat #CampusChat at 9pm ET/6pm PT on the fourth Wednesday of each month. Except this month, we are hosting an open mic night on Wednesday, December 17. Bring your questions and comments about college prep over the holidays!

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New college cost comparison tool

Calculating and comparing college costs, Photo by Derrick Coetzee

Calculating and comparing college costs, Photo by Derrick Coetzee

College choice would be much less stressful if costs weren’t part of the decision. But they are and calculating and comparing them can be difficult. That’s where a new tool from College Abacus can help parents and students.

Calculations Wouldn’t it be helpful if parents and students could calculate and compare costs of attending different schools before paying application fees to schools they can’t afford?

A recent federal law mandates schools to include a Net Price Calculator (NPC) on their website to give families a general estimate of the net price of attending that school. The goal is to figure out how college sticker price may be reduced by financial aid the student is qualified to receive.

The actual amount is contained in a financial aid award letter that shows grants, scholarships and student loans the student is eligible for if he attends that school. However, students won’t get their award letter until they have applied and were admitted to that school.

Note that qualifying students won’t be eligible to receive monies from federal and state government financial aid programs and many college endowment funds without first submitting financial aid applications. And merit awards are often based on student abilities as compared to others offered admission.

Also note there is no one NPC that all colleges use. Schools can use the federal Department of Education (ED) NPC template, use another or create their own so the amount and type of info parents and students enter for each college to get a calculation may vary.

Answers Learning potential costs from each college’s site can help families form a college list that is more affordable. Discovering costs on one website can save time and stress. College Abacus does this. Families enter information once to get their answers. They also get details about which NPC the school uses and a description of the type of aid-grant or scholarship, and source-college or government.

Best of all, it provides different ways for families to get this information, depending on their needs and budget. The first way is free and allows comparison for up to three schools. There is a charge for the other way which gives financial aid estimates for the top 100 colleges and/or top 100 universities ranked by US News & World Report.

Tips To get the best cost estimates, consider the following tips:

  • Answer questions as accurately as possible because they are based on financial aid questions federal and state governments and colleges will ask on financial aid forms.
  • The federal College Navigator also provides school NPCs but like going to each college or university’s site, parents and students must input their info per school. College Abacus saves the data so info is entered once. Also it is available for use and not affected by government shutdowns like federal sites
  • Education consumers have to be savvy when it comes to college costs. NPC’s do not take into account hidden costs. It is up to families to add in POCS COA costs.
  • For more info about financial aid costs, read the new blog from College Abacus. POCSmom’s readers  receive a 20% discount for Abacus100 by using the code POCS20.

Give College Abacus college cost comparison tool a try and let me know how it helped you make better college choices.

UPDATE: On August 5, 2014 @CollegeAbacus sent a tweet informing me that “College Abacus is now a #nonprofit!”