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Countdown to College: Figuring out how much college is going to cost

Please don’t be one of those parents who encourage their students to apply to loads of colleges and universities with no regard to how much it is going to cost. Parents who tell their children “we’ll figure it out after you get in” are setting themselves and their children up for disappointment.

I’m not saying that there is no aid available. On the contrary, there is a lot of need-based aid and merit-based aid, but you have to know where to look.

Now there are resources available so families don’t need to wait until the spring of a student’s senior year to find out how much aid they will receive and what the net cost is at each college. Colleges are now required to post a tool called the “Net Price Calculator” on their website. You can also go directly to to get your results.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy, the author of “The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price” ( and college contributor at CBS MoneyWatch, shares some great advice about the Net Price Calculator.

On O’Shaughnessy’s website she provides a fascinating case study of a high performing student (ranked in top 5 percent of her class of 400 students, seven AP courses by graduation, 3.97 GPA – one B-plus, and all test scores above 740) in Washington state whose family has a combined gross income of $150,000.

The family provided additional financial information and researched 66 different colleges on the Net Price Calculator where each college was provided with the identical information. The grant aid (not loans) ranged from $0 at the University of Washington to more than $38,000 per year from both Harvard and Yale, with most of the colleges offering aid that hovered in the $10,000-$15,000 per year range.

Let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean the student will be accepted at every school, but IF they are accepted the Net Price Calculator is providing a good estimate of the anticipated aid a family will receive. Many of the 66 colleges considered the aid to be merit-based due to the student’s strong academic performance, but several colleges on the list, including those in the Ivy League that do not provide merit aid, listed the grants as need-based aid.

O’Shaughnessy advises families to experiment with different grade point averages and test scores so they can see how much their aid might increase if the student improves. She provides another great example of a student applying to Northeastern University in Boston where a dad initially plugged in his son’s SAT score of 1,300 (out of 1,600) and the calculator estimated his grant at $20,000 for the first year.

After his son tested again and increased his score to 1,340, the dad retried the calculator and discovered that his son’s award had jumped to $34,200; a 40-point increase meant more than $14,000 more in aid.

The net-net of the Net Price Calculator is that you need to do your homework and check out a variety of colleges and universities because many of them are likely to surprise you with how much or how little they give.

Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website at www.CollegeAdmissions-