Your high school senior has filled out the college applications, navigated through the standardized tests, submitted the student loan paperwork and even squeezed in a couple of campus visits.
Now it’s crunch time as the acceptance letters and financial aid packages start to trickle in. But how do you size up — financially speaking — who is offering the best deal among your favorites?
The answer, experts say, lies in knowing the “net price.”
The net price is generally defined as the difference between the total cost of college — covering such things as tuition, books, and room and board, but also lab fees, travel and personal expenses — and any scholarships, grants and other aid that doesn’t need to be repaid.
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Put another way, it’s the amount of money you’ll have to come up with from 529 accounts, other savings and investments, and any loans to cover the college tab.
Knowing the net price will help you make a more informed decision as you weigh whether a school is a good financial fit and a solid academics match, plus other factors such as the weather and the proximity to where the boyfriend or girlfriend plans to attend college.
You may think the net price calculation is easy, but many colleges don’t clearly define all the costs of attendance in their financial aid awards letter, said Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert with Edvisors.com.
Some may list only the direct costs, such as tuition and meal plans, while others may underestimate how much to figure for books, supplies and extracurricular activities to make the school look less expensive. Head to the school’s website for a complete list.
The net price generally represents freshman year only. According to Kantrowitz, many colleges “front-load” scholarships and grants the first year but are not as generous after that even though tuition keeps rising. That could yield a higher net price in succeeding years.
You also need to put large scholarships and grants in perspective. Many high-priced schools tend to give out more of this gift aid but still may cost substantially more than an in-state school.
Finally, don’t confuse net price with “net cost,” which many schools emphasize in their financial materials.
The net cost is the difference between the total cost of attending State U and the full financial aid package — the scholarships and grants, but also any loans. Those loans will eventually require repayment of the principal and interest, so there’s a cost involved.
“Loans do not cut college costs,” Kantrowitz said.
When weighing student loans, think about potential career choices.
“Having an idea of your future earnings potential will help you avoid overborrowing now,” said Joe DePaulo, a financial aid expert and owner of College Ave Student Loans.
While all the numbers can be overwhelming, online financial aid calculators can help you sift through the award offers.
For example, the calculator at FinAid.org allows you to compare financial costs from three schools at once. FinAid has a second calculator that reviews financial packages and other characteristics of a school that may affect the final choice, such as distance from home, religious affiliation and average temperatures.