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College Math 101: Calculating the Real Cost of Attending


College acceptance letters are rolling in. Now the hard part-figuring out where the kids can afford to go. WSJ’s Rachel Louise Ensign shares what’s key to navigating those utility-bill-like financial aid awards on Lunch Break. (Photo: Getty Images)

The fat envelopes are rolling in for Rhianna Lawson, a high-school senior in Virginia Beach, Va. But her college pick won’t come down to which has the greenest quad or best dorm. It’ll be about how much her parents have to shell out.

So far, Ms. Lawson has gotten into four of the nine schools she has applied to. But after looking at aid packages and doing the math, the family has realized one of her top picks, the honors college at Clemson University, would be the priciest option. So they’re trying their hand at negotiating a better aid package.

“It’s a dilemma that a lot of us are in who make a little bit too much to qualify for need-based aid, but are still uncomfortable shelling out $100,000 to $200,000 a kid for college,” says Jeff Lawson, her father.

It’s college-acceptance season, when many high-school seniors reap the rewards of years pulling good grades and cramming in sports and other activities to appeal to their schools of choice. It’s also the time parents start crunching the numbers to figure out if Junior can actually afford to attend—and if not, how they can squeeze more aid from the schools.

This annual dance is made all the more complicated—and essential—these days with college-tuition costs rising, states cutting back funding and endowments still recovering from the financial crisis.

The cost of attending a private college rose 5% for the 2011-12 school year, while the cost of a four-year, in-state public college was up 8%, according to the College Board. And 123 schools now charge more than $50,000 a year for tuition, fees, room and board.

Do the Math

The first thing you need to do is compare your aid package from a school with the total cost of attendance. The magic number is the tab you’ll be left with after accounting for any scholarships and aid.

There are the obvious expenses—tuition, fees, books, room and board. A word of caution: Colleges may leave one or more of these costs off the aid letter, so make sure you account for them, says Sandy Baum, co-author of the College Board’s “Trends in Student Aid” report.

Then there are the less obvious costs. Will your child have to take lab-based courses that come with significant fees? Will he or she need a car, with gas and insurance costs, to get around campus? What about plane or train tickets to come home a few times a year? Will you have to pay for off-campus housing at some point? Is the cost of living in the city where the college is located particularly high?

Next, go through the aid—grants, loans and work-study money—and factor in any money from outside sources. Keep in mind that grants and scholarships are far more valuable than loans that have to be repaid. If you have money in 529 college savings or prepaid tuition plans take that money into account as well.

Some grants are good for four years if your child continues to meet certain requirements, while others are good for only freshman year. If it’s the latter, you’ll need to factor in additional costs of attendance for those later years, notes Scott Anderson, president of, a provider of college-planning tools.

Complete this mathematical exercise for each school your child is considering attending. Once you have a realistic tab for each of school, you can start comparing to see which is really giving you the best deal.

In their calculations, Ms. Lawson’s parents have to consider that tuition at the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary would be covered by money they set aside in a Virginia prepaid-tuition plan back in 2001. But they also have the option of getting the money they put into that plan back penalty-free and pairing it with the merit aid Ms. Lawson has been offered at the University of Charleston, which would be cheaper overall.

“We’re in a dilemma as a family,” says Mr. Lawson, “Do we try and negotiate with Clemson? Or, do we try to negotiate with the University of Charleston and try to get a completely full ride?”

Ask for More

Of course, the school with the best aid package isn’t always the one at the top of a student’s list. But one of most important things parents need to know is that financial-aid awards aren’t set in stone, says Mr. Anderson. Parents often can convince a college to provide a bigger grant based on need, merit or both.

One potential way is to show a change in your financial situation, such as a job loss, pay cut, big medical bills or high dependent-care costs, says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. You’ll likely need to make an official request in writing and submit documentation to back up your claim.

You can negotiate a better deal even without a financial setback. Schools often will boost a merit award if you send them a competitor’s offer with a request to match it, says Jennifer Rucker, the college activities coordinator at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago. You’ll typically only be able to do this at schools that offer merit aid, says Mr. Draeger. And make sure you are comparing apples to apples. In other words, a public college likely won’t match an offer from a private college.

Also let a school know if your child has had any recent significant achievements. After applying to several schools last fall, Karen Burlage’s 17-year-old son, Brian, won four national writing competitions. So Ms. Burlage, who lives in a suburb of Denver, figured she might as well find out if those awards warranted more merit money from two colleges that had given him less than the family had expected.

The in-state private school told her to apply for a $6,000-a-year grant. The out-of-state public school boosted his merit-aid package by $400 a year. Brian is waiting to hear back from other schools before making a decision.

“In a competitive environment where schools are all fighting to get the top students, why not see how bad a school wants him, if it’s a school he likes?” says Ms. Burlage. “If you don’t ask, you’re not going to get anything.”


0 Responses to College Math 101: Calculating the Real Cost of Attending

  1. University of California Berkeley now more expensive than Harvard and Yale!. I love University of California having been a student & lecturer. Like so many I am disappointed by Chancellor Birgeneau’s failure to arrest escalating costs/tuition. Birgeneau doubled instate tuition. On an all-in cost UC Berkeley is the most expensive public university; more expensive than Harvard, Yale. Tuition consumes more than 14% of a median family income
    UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau needs a lesson in fiscal efficiency

    Lessons learned?

  2. […] College Math 101: Calculating the Real Cost of Attending ( […]

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