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Decoding the price of college: Complexity of figuring out costs holds students back

Decoding the price of college: Complexity of figuring out costs holds students back

The Hechinger Report

Olivia Sanchez
May 16, 2022
College costs differ for almost everyone, just like airline tickets.
But while plane tickets vary by carrier, date of purchase and luck, college costs hinge on reported family income, assets, the grades a student got in high school, the type of institution they want to attend and mastery of a complicated application system.
Although about 85 percent of freshmen at four-year residential colleges receive some kind of financial aid, families get scared off by the sticker price, according to Phillip Levine, an economist who studies the problem.  That sticker price is a clear number, while the processes for bringing that number down – through financial aid or other processes – are complex and far from transparent.
Levine and other college access experts are now on a mission to make the road to college smoother — and ultimately more affordable — especially for families who have traditionally had a harder time accessing higher education. Along with more money in aid for low-income students, they advocate for earlier and better communication with families as they make college-going decisions, and better training for counselors at the high school level who are trying to help them.
“Social mobility, I think, is an outcome that, regardless of your political perspective, is something that you can get behind,” said Levine, a professor at Wellesley College. “College is a great way to promote social mobility. So, to the extent that we have levers that we can pull that can help accomplish that goal, it seems like we should.”
Levine and three other experts discussed these “levers” at a Brookings Institute webinar last week promoting Levine’s new book, “A Problem of Fit: How the Complexity of College Pricing Hurts Students – and Universities.” All agreed that too many families struggle to get the information and guidance needed to make college financing choices.
For example, a college’s sticker price will not be the actual cost for most people, as federal, state or institutional financial aid can bring that price down substantially. To get a more accurate estimate of what college will cost, Levine suggested families use net-cost calculators, which incorporate how much financial aid might be available. Colleges are required to have these on their websites; the U.S. Department of Education has one, and many others have popped up online, including one Levine created himself.
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