Trying to Compare College Costs

College is expansive. Pretty much everyone in America seems to know this in a general sense. But when parents and students are trying to decide which college is most affordable, it would be useful to know which of available colleges might be least expensive. But that’s pretty hard to figure out.

According to a piece by Annie Lowrey at Slate:

Nonstandardized financial aid award letters might be the biggest problem, one that has been knitting the brows of prospective students and higher-ed wonks for years. Schools send these award letters to accepted students, letting them know how much and what type of aid the institution can offer. The idea is to help students comparison shop. But comparison shopping is difficult when you’re weighing apples and oranges.

These letters look and read differently. Most schools provide a cost-of-attendance estimate including the price of classes along with the price of housing, books, food, transportation, and other necessities. But different schools calculate the total cost of attendance differently. Many, for instance, perennially underestimate the cost of living in their respective college towns.

It’s not that individual colleges are deliberately misleading; it’s just that students are comparing different colleges and they want to know what one college is offering compared to another college.

Obviously America’s high school students are smart, web-savvy people who can figure out how to navigate these things. But, as the article points out, they can’t compare prices easily, which is necessary for them to be informed consumers. “Big, expensive purchases require smart, educated customers,” Lowrey writes. “That is why the government created the new fuel-efficiency labels. It is also why the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is rolling out simplified, standardized home-mortgage forms.”

Isn’t it about time to do something about college costs, which are now high enough to be in the same purchasing category as houses and cars?

The idea of treating students like “consumers” is a little unsettling. One hopes education is a little more important than just a fee in exchange for a commercial good. But the average annual tuition at an American college is now $20,154. With princes like this at the very least it’s time to start providing students them with enough information to do some comparison shopping. It’s their money.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer