Cost of attendance is often the biggest factor in choosing a college, but the affordability of any particular college or university can be difficult to determine. Here are some steps you and your family can take..
Know how much your family can pay for college.
The actual amount you can afford to spend may depend on a variety of factors. Be clear and honest about how much parents are able to contribute and the amount the student will be able to earn or save for college.
Understand actual cost of attendance numbers.
Colleges provide current cost information for tuition, fees, housing, meals and other expenses on their websites. Look at these numbers carefully to understand how they are determined. Do tuition and fees change based on number of credit hours? Are students living in residence halls required to pay for a more expensive meal plan? Are the average transportation or living expenses high or low for your situation?
Gather information about scholarship programs offered by the college.
The school website is also a source of information about eligibility for the different scholarships offered by the school. Check to see if any apply to your situation and whether they are guaranteed for any eligible student or are competitive awards.
Research scholarships, grants and other aid recently awarded to similar students by the schools you're interested in.
Many colleges and universities offer data about the number of students who received aid and how much total aid was awarded through a document called the Common Data Set. To find it, type the name of the institution and “Common Data Set” in your internet search engine.
Estimate your family's costs.
A net cost calculator can help estimate the amount you may be expected to pay at a particular institution. Search online for the name of the school and “net cost calculator” to find that institution's tool. Some calculators allow you to input your family's financial and other information to estimate available scholarships and aid; others are less robust and will provide a more general estimate of net cost. Certain factors, like a family business, may affect the accuracy of net cost calculators.
Determine a realistic timeline.
The amount of time it takes the average student to graduate may vary depending on the school, specific program and other factors. The graduation rates provided on the school's Common Data Set may help you determine a realistic timeline.
Compare a reasonable estimate of the actual cost for a total college career to the amount you can afford to pay.
This information will help you decide if a college is affordable to your family. Remember, this is only an estimate, and you may be able to work with the financial aid office, increase earnings, reduce expenses or find additional funding to make a college choice more affordable.