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!

Wednesday’s Parent will give twice the info and double the blog posts on critical parenting issues by clicking on the link at the end of the article from to and vice versa.

*POCSmom’s DIY College Prep Insight: Net Price Calculator-From Day Dream to Nightmare

Cliché: Count down.    
POCS Reality: Before attending college, it is important to accurately calculate your out-of-pocket costs.


How did the dream of comparing college costs turn into a nightmare of confusion?

The Day Dream

Prospective students and their parents could learn their college costs before attending, so they wouldn’t get in over their heads in debt..

The Reality

A new federal law (Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2009 (see HEOA Sec. 111 which amended HEA Title I, Part C: added HEA Sec. 132(a), Sec. 132(h) (20 U.S.C. 1015a(a), 20 U.S.C. 1015a(h))) requires colleges to include a Net Price Calculator (NPC) on their website by October 29, 2011.

The basic Net Price Calculation is:

Price of attendance – estimated financial aid = out-of-pocket college costs.

The Nightmare

Although October 29th has not yet arrived, many schools have already added an NPC. The problem is both the calculator and the calculations are so flawed that college cost comparisons are difficult at best.

  1. No uniform calculator exists and colleges using some general guidelines are free to design their own NPC or contract with a business to develop one for them. That means students and parents will be college cost comparing apples to oranges.
  2. Price of Attendance is underestimated and always will be until a college’s cost of attendance formula (COA) includes a family’s huge hidden extra expenses. I call this formula the POCS COA.
  3. Financial aid estimates are inaccurate for two reasons. First, because the real calculation will be based on a complicated formula applied to the 100+ questions students and parents must answer on the federal financial aid form FAFSA. Some schools may also require additional forms regarding awards from institutional funds. Second, because not all financial aid reduces the college bill but are ways to pay the college bill. Only free money grants and scholarships lower college expenses. Federal education loans have borrowing costs that raise the college costs they are being used to help pay, but this fact is not mentioned. Don’t get me started on the Federal Work Study (FWS) Program. Here, students, not the college, receive a paycheck as they work in their FWS job. I think of this award (often $1000-$2,000 for the year) more like pizza and latte money.

 The POCSmom’s DIY College Prep Insight and Stress-busting tip

I love the idea of families calculating their college costs and having a plan for how to pay them. College is supposed to help not hinder a family’s finances, so think about colleges you can afford either from cash on hand (savings, checking, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, education savings plans) and/or what you can afford to borrow (based on repayment and projected future income).

Use my POCS COA formula to calculate college costs and a chart to determine how to pay those college costs.

For more college-bound information and myth-busting tips, consider POCSmom’s advice for the college-bound:

Don’t let sky rocketing college costs and shrinking financial aid plunge your family into a deep hole of educational loan debt. Escape the Net Price Calculator nightmare and start living your college dreams. 

*POCS: Parent Of a College Student