How to Predict the Cost of College


We’ve written before on this blog about the little-known fact that colleges with the highest list prices often offer the most in terms of scholarships and financial aid, potentially making them financially the most affordable college option for high-achieving, low-income students. Combine this with the recent news about encouraging high-achieving, low-income to apply to highly-selective schools, the question still remains about the higher education price tag.

A tool has been created by Wellesley College called Wellesley’s Quick College Cost Estimator. Using nine pieces of information, including six pieces of anonymous financial information, the tool offers an estimated parental financial contribution and the range in which the final contribution is likely to fall. The calculator asks for the students’ citizenship status, family living arrangement, number of siblings simultaneously in college, annual family income, approximate value of home, size of remaining mortgage, amount of retirement savings, amount of cash savings, and amount of other investment holdings. It’s comprehensive to say the least.

Phillip B. Levine, an economics professor at Wellesley, designed the site, who, according to an article by the Chronicle of Higher Education, has long been interested in the issue of college access.  As Chronicle writer Beckie Supiano explains:

Mr. Levine started thinking about an estimator six or so years ago, he says—before the federal government required colleges to post a net-price calculator, allowing families to estimate what they would pay after grant aid. But even now, he says, his estimator serves a slightly different purpose.

While this is not the first such calculator—for example, Harvard has one as does the College Board—David Leonhardt writes in a New York Times article, “Wellesley’s version is the simplest I have seen—which means it is the least likely to scare away families who may already be intimidated by college costs.”

Though the calculator is for prospective Wellesley applicants, David Leondhardt points out that financial-aid policies are similar enough across elite colleges that the calculator can offer a rough estimate of how much families would pay to attend any one of dozens of such colleges.

He cautions though that the calculator does not count student loans or work-study wages as part of a family’s contribution and recommends adding $5,000 to the final estimate to account for these weaknesses.

Regardless, we commend Wellesley’s effort to make college costs predictable and understandable.