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Calculating the tab of a college sheepskin

How much will going to college cost? We all know that tuition-and-fee prices have been rising faster than the rate of inflation. The annual college tuition-and-fee tab has risen at an average annual rate of some 6% over the past decade while consumer prices are up about 2.5% a year. Yet unlike a computer or a home it isn't easy to figure out the real price tag of a college education until your student has made a choice of where to go..

Still, there are some calculators that help. The single best resource is Finaid.org. It offers a wealth of calculators that cover everything from figuring out how much college costs to how much you'll need tp meet the annual bill. I've spent a lot of time over the years on its calculators.

It's most popular are the College Cost Projector, the Savings Plan Designer (Flat Contribution), the Expected Family Contribution and Financial Aid Calculator, and the Loan Calculator.

The Expected Family Contribution and Financial Aid Calculator is especially useful. It gives you a preview of FAFSA--the federal financial aid application--and what you can expect. In other words, it gets to the heart of the real bill for college.

It's a safe bet you'll be shocked at how much money colleges expect from you. Many families feel they're living on the financial edge. It's tough to pay the monthly bills. But according to the numbers spewed out by FAFSA, you're living fat and easy with plenty of money to contribute.

The College Board is another resource for calculators. The website isn't as easy to navigate and a number of the calculators are basic. But it covers the important issues, including a repayment schedule for parent loans.

The most intriguing calculator is its net price calculator. At the moment it's disaspointing because it offers only a few colleges that are using its net price calculator. It's a tool for giving a realistic estimate of the "out-of-pocket" costs to attend a specific college, such as the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Jamestown College in North Dakota.

The information should get better with time, too. Congress mandated that colleges and universities publish their "net price" calculator by the end of October, 2011. This study from the Institute for College Access & Success into 16 net price calculators suggests a lot more needs to be done.

We found a great deal of variation in how easy these calculators would be for prospective college students and their families to find, use, and understand. Some calculators were prominently placed on their colleges' websites, made it simple for students and parents to get results, and clearly communicated likely costs, available financial aid, and net price. Meanwhile, many other calculators were difficult to locate, required detailed financial information that students and parents would have to look up, and presented results in ways that could lead users to believe that a particular college is more affordable than it likely would be for them.

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.

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