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Lifting the veil off the true costs of college

Published: Friday, Oct. 11, 2013 10:28 a.m. CDT

WASHINGTON (MCT) — A new online app called College Abacus is making it easier for students and their families to get estimates in advance of how much financial aid colleges and universities will give so that they can compare schools for costs.

It comes at an opportune time, since the shutdown of many government programs because of the political standoff over the federal budget has disabled College Navigator, a tool also designed to help families figure out college costs and operated by the Department of Education.

Until about two years ago, financial aid was a mystery until a student got a college acceptance letter and a financial aid package. Change began in 2011, when the federal government required schools to offer online net price calculators, which compute a school's full cost of attendance, minus estimated scholarships, based on family income and other information that individuals enter.

College Abacus is a free, one-stop shop. It taps the net price calculators at three schools a student selects. Then, based on personal information entered once into College Abacus, the site retrieves the estimates. More schools can be entered, three at a time.

The federal government's College Navigator website offers a rougher estimate. For each school, it will give estimated net prices for several income levels.

"Even if the government has stopped working, parents still need to find financial aid for their students to go to college," said College Abacus co-founder Abigail Seldin.

And finding out in advance which schools are likely to be affordable can bring peace to households in the spring, when most full-time students get their college decisions, Seldin said. It also can help reduce student debt.

Referring to a popular travel accommodations search engine, Seldin calls College Abacus the kayak.com of net price calculators. It takes 10 minutes or more to copy financial information from a tax return and answer other questions on many net price calculators. College Abacus lets a user log in via Facebook, Google-plus or Twitter and save the data so that it only has to be done once.

The free service isn't without some glitches.

It requires the patience to wait a few minutes for some estimates. In some cases, as when schools take their calculators down for revisions, College Abacus can't get results. Seldin said her staff of 10 checks the school websites to make sure they're working and that it should take no more than one week before the estimate will be produced on another try.

Another issue with the estimates is the quality of the net price calculators.

Many schools use a simple calculator developed by the Department of Education, rather than ones developed by the College Board and others that ask more detailed financial questions. One important question the Department of Education calculators don't ask is the amount of parents' assets. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), a form required of all students who hope to get financial aid, asks about assets, and schools use FAFSA information when they decide on aid amounts.

College Abacus, in the details section of the estimates report, tells users what type of net price calculator a school offers.

The National College Access Network, a nonprofit group that assists schools, mentoring groups and other organizations that help students get into college and do well once there, reviewed College Abacus when it was in a trial period last year and offered suggestions.

College Abacus also won a $100,000 grant through College Knowledge Challenge, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Carrie Warick, director of policy and partnerships at the college access network, said the tool had two big benefits.

"One is that it's a big-time saver for students because it means they don't have to go to every college website and answer the same questions over and over again," she said. "The other is that many colleges don't make the net price calculators readily available on their websites."

(c)2013 McClatchy Washington Bureau Distributed by MCT Information Services

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