How to Find the Best (or Worst) Deals for College

A new site, the College Affordability and Transparency Center, gives users clear data about the true cost of higher education.

Forget the venerated U.S. News & World Report college rankings. The list that cash-strapped prospective students and their parents will really be paying attention to this fall comes from the government. On Thursday the U.S. Department of Education unveiled the College Affordability and Transparency Center, a new website designed to provide clear data about the true cost of college.

The site allows users to generate static lists of which schools have the highest and lowest tuition and net prices. You simply choose what kind of school you want to attend—public, private, four-year, or two-year. Then you decide if you want to sort by highest or lowest price, click "generate report," and the tool makes a nice, easy-to-understand list of around 50 schools.

I played around with the generator a bit and found that I might need to add North Dakota's Sitting Bull College—net price a mere $938 per year—to my two sons' Future College Options list. Sitting Bull is the public four-year college with the lowest net price—the difference between the total cost of the school, including room and board, and the average financial aid awarded to students. I'm sure they'll probably freak out over that suggestion, so it's nice to know that despite tuition increases in the California State University system, attending a school like Cal State Los Angeles—$3,263 per year—is still an incredibly affordable option.

Interestingly, the private school listed as having the most expensive tuition in the nation, Bates College in Maine, which comes to $51,300 for 2009-10, told the Washington Post that they show up at the top of the list because their price tag includes classes plus living expenses. If they decoupled those, like most colleges do, Bates wouldn't actually be the nation's priciest school.

That's where a second useful tool the government's made available can come in handy. The site has links to another database, the College Navigator, that allows users to search for specific colleges and get even more detailed information—enrollment, available majors and student loan default rates—about a school. On the detail report, a user could clearly see that Bates' cost, as expensive as it seems, is actually a comprehensive fee, and their average financial aid award is $30,503.

College Navigator also allows users to do side-by-side comparisons of up to four schools they're interested in. I decided to compare my alma mater, Northwestern University with our crosstown rival, the University of Chicago. Both are undeniably expensive—Northwestern's cost for 2010-11 is a whopping $57,590 while the University of Chicago is slightly cheaper at $56,406.

But, when I compare the financial aid numbers, it turns out that 60 percent of U of C students received grants—average amount $28,068—while only 49 percent of Northwestern students do, with an average of $23,717. Indeed, as I dug into the comparison data—as much as it kills me to say it, U of C actually seems the like better deal. My dreams of my sons being legacy students at Northwestern might have to be rethought.

Clearly, this is exactly the kind of side-by-side comparison information that families need to make informed decisions about college. And sure, critics will say it's all data that's available on various other websites or those 1,000-page books on colleges at the library, but this new resource is clearer, more comprehensive, and more accessible than any other I've seen.

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