New Data Helps Planning for College

It seems like it was only yesterday that I was pouring over US News & World Report magazines and the Princeton Review book ‘best colleges.’  Of course, it’s obvious that it was a while ago because I’m referring to magazines and books.  Today, everything you need is online.

In fact, the volume and quality of the data just got a little better in my opinion thanks to the new College Scorecard data from the Department of Education, which you can find here.

We have a database of college costs at Acropolis, but the Scorecard has quite a bit more.  For example, our database shows that the all-in cost of Harvard is $59,607, which breaks down to $43,938 for tuition, $14,669 for room and board and $1,000 for books and supplies.

On the College Scorecard, it shows basically the same sticker cost, but that the average annual cost is actually $16,789 when you factor in the total amount of federal, state or institutional grant aid that is paid out to the student body.

I chose Harvard because everyone knows it (and I’m still hopeful for my daughters), but also because the Scorecard has a link to Harvard’s website where you can calculate your personal ‘net’ price.

I was surprised to see that a family with a $200,000 income can still receive approximately $20,000 per year in aid.  The aid falls to $600 when your income reaches $250,000 but the Scorecard says that the average cost for families with more than $110,000 in income is ‘only’ $36,946.

When I looked at my wife’s college, Denison University in Ohio, I found roughly the same thing, although the average cost was higher at $23,507.  I assume that Harvard has a bigger endowment that helps more students with financial aid, but I don’t really know that.  Still, I assume that Harvard is a little different than the typical private college given its uber-selective status.

Although the average cost is higher at Harvard, only three percent of students receive federal loans, while 52 percent receive them at Denison.  The typical total debt upon graduation at Denison is $25,000, which translates into a typical monthly loan payment of $278.

There is also a lot of interesting non-financial data at the Scorecard’s website like the graduation rate, the average salary after 10 years in the work force and percentage of kids who come back for their sophomore year.

I was more interested in the cost information, though, and the big take-away for me is that expensive private colleges may not be as expensive as I thought depending on family income.

I’ve noted before that college planning is tough (click here for the article) because the costs vary so dramatically.  Our database says that the average cost of an in-state public school education was $20,000 and a high end private school was $60,000.

My older daughter is 13 and I have no idea whether Mizzou, Denison or Harvard will be the best fit for her, which matters a lot for planning purposes.  It’s risky to overfund a 529 plan because the tax consequence of over-funding a 529 can be expensive.

With the new College Scorecard information, I can get a more reasonable sense of the likely costs, which will hopefully make planning more accurate.  Obviously, I’m in the thick of this planning for myself, but having better cost assumptions will make our planning better for everyone.