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College aid — the daunting calculus

New tool aims to help make sense of it all

Akeasia Edwards, 18, her mother, Cindy Lewis, and Brooke Fincke, head counselor at City on a Hill Charter Public School, used the “net price calculators’’ to estimate college costs.
Akeasia Edwards, 18, her mother, Cindy Lewis, and Brooke Fincke, head counselor at City on a Hill Charter Public School, used the “net price calculators’’ to estimate college costs. (Kayana Szymczak for The Globe Staff)

Akeasia Edwards wants to go to college. When she walks into City on a Hill charter school in Roxbury, the goal is right in front of her: “COLLEGE’’ shouts in 15-foot letters on the wall. What she can’t see as clearly is how much that dream will cost.

Colleges do not assemble students’ financial aid packages until the spring acceptance season. The fall application process is like ordering from a menu with no prices - except that the menu is huge and the choice may be life-changing.

But for Edwards and the nation’s other 3 million aspiring college freshmen, this fall may mark a break from the uncertainty of the past.

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In accordance with a federal mandate that took effect yesterday, all colleges now offer tools on their websites that help students assess the true price of their degrees by subtracting financial aid estimates from tuition.

The Department of Education has introduced a spate of reforms since the passage of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, most of them intended to make the finances of college attendance easier to parse. The new “net price calculators’’ are part of that initiative.

Advocates say the calculators will help college-bound students make better decisions about where they enroll and how they pay for their education. The argument resonates as the nation’s collective student debt approaches $1 trillion.

But critics say the calculators can be more confusing than enlightening.

For families like Edwards’s, knowing the true price of college is especially critical. Her mother, Cindy Lewis, faithfully puts $150 in a college fund every month, but with an income of $25,840, paying the bill over four years will require sacrifices.

So last week, Edwards and her mother, a teacher’s aide, took a deep breath, sat down at a computer, and tried to figure out just what the bill will be. With the help of two financial aid counselors at City on a Hill, they tried five net price calculators. They encountered a few surprises and one wrenching disappointment. They were glad to have the information - better to find out now than later.

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But they also felt they needed to know much more.

The calculators start with sticker price - tuition plus room and board. Then they subtract permutations of possible aid, from federal grants to institutional scholarships, based on financial and academic data students type in. The remaining net price approximates out-of-pocket costs.

Brooke Fincke, City on a Hill’s head counselor, explained that Edwards would have two factors in her favor: good grades and high need. The calculators might help her rule out some schools or make others look more attractive.

Edwards took out a wish list of 21 schools.

She started with Mount Holyoke College, a private women’s school in South Hadley - or at least she tried to start. At first, she couldn’t find the calculator on the school’s site.

The problem resurfaced repeatedly. “Sometimes, it seems like the colleges are hiding them,’’ said Edwards’s financial aid adviser, Monica Hayden, who works with a nonprofit called ACCESS that helps students navigate financial aid. Indeed, a report released earlier this month by the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success found that many calculators were buried in obscure corners of college websites.

There was another glitch after Edwards found the calculator: Was she in “some, all, or most’’ Advanced Placement or honors classes?

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“That’s a hard question,’’ she said. “Do I really have to do this?’’

Fincke and Hayden nodded, then stopped nodding.

“Wait,’’ said Fincke. “Do you?’’ Was the question optional? It wasn’t clear, even to two financial aid professionals.

“This is one of the most complicated calculators I’ve seen,’’ said Hayden, again echoing a concern in the Institute for College Access & Success report, which found that some calculators ask as many as 60 questions or require obscure financial information.

Edwards shifted in her chair. She had brought her family’s tax records with her, but what about others doing this by themselves at home? Would they have the information and patience they needed?

Then came another glitch: Cindy Lewis wasn’t sure how much her daughter’s father made.

And another: Trying to figure out how much liquid cash she had in a typical month, Lewis just laughed.

But a few minutes later, Lewis and Edwards did have a rough estimate of how much Mount Holyoke might cost. The sticker price was $55,496, but the school would cover a huge chunk - about $47,250 - and federal grants, work study, and a small loan could help, too. Net price: $2,646.

Next up was Salem State University. This calculator was much shorter, to Edwards’s relief. But making sense of its results took extra work. The net price was $9,857, but these calculations worked differently than Mount Holyoke’s. The $9,857 didn’t account for student loans or work study.

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Critics say this kind of variability is a flaw. “These calculators should be about helping people shop around,’’ said Andrew Kelly, a research fellow in education policy at the American Enterprise Institute. “If you can’t compare the results that well, you just get a cacophony.’’

Salem State’s calculator also assumed Edwards would have $2,000 a year in personal expenses. “You can cut it down if you go to the salon every three weeks instead of two for hair,’’ Fincke said. “And nails.’’ Edwards tucked her rainbow-colored acrylics under the desk.

It was time to look at a third calculator. Edwards raved about Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, but Fincke had concerns about checking out its financial offerings, which generally consist of credit-based loans rather than need-based grants. “Akeasia,’’ she said, “I don’t want to break your heart.’’ Edwards started typing.

Howard would cost her about $28,350 a year.

Edwards and her mother turned to Bridgewater State University, a school Cindy Lewis had heard was highly affordable. Net price: $12,946. But again, the number was hard to interpret. It laid out $4,000 for personal expenses, and it did not account for scholarships and loans.

The final calculator was for Trinity College in Hartford, with a net price of $7,400. The number didn’t include federal loans, but a separate line on the form said Edwards would be eligible for several. “We may be able to afford this institution,’’ Fincke said, voice rising. All four women leaned forward.

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It had been an hour, and Edwards and Lewis were exhausted. No more calculating for today. But they had learned a lot. Mount Holyoke looked newly appealing. Bridgewater State was out, said Lewis; rumors of its affordability had been exaggerated. “Expectations are so high,’’ she said, “but you just have to come down to reality.’’

As for Howard, “I want to go there,’’ Edwards said. “I do. But the financial aid is - it’s not great.’’

Would she still apply?

She stared down at her hands. “No.’’

Her list was down to 19.


Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com. Her Twitter feed is mary_carmichael.