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Economics Professor Promotes Publishing the 'True Cost' of Attending College

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Fifteen US colleges — including seven in New England — are now offering a new and easy way for applicants to figure out how much their education may actually cost. It’s a website created by an economist at Wellesley College in order to help students realize college “sticker prices” are usually misleading.

The average published price for tuition, fees, and room and board at a private American college this year was $45,000.

At some elite colleges in Massachusetts, it’s much more. At Amherst and Wellesley Colleges, for example, the published cost is $69,000 a year to students entering this fall.

At Williams College it’s $68,000. At Boston College it’s $71,000.

But those are the sticker prices. The real cost is usually less.

“By my calculation, something like 90% of households in the US would qualify for financial aid, which would bring their price down below the $70,000 or the big numbers that you typically hear,” says Wellesley College Economics Professor Phillip Levine.

He wants more students and parents to realize this.

“A Most people would not be expected to pay that amount,” he says.

Determining the actual cost of college confounded Levine, and he’s an economist who teaches at a college.

“I couldn’t figure out how much I was going to have to pay for college for my kids, and I thought that that was a little bit odd,” he says. “It seems like there should be a system which, if you want to know what it’s going to cost, people should be able to figure it out.”“

Most colleges have calculators on their web sites, but they require you to pull out your tax forms.

So Levine created MyinTuition.

It’s a web site that allows you, in just a few questions, to figure out what you’ll actually pay to attend Wellesley College.

Levine reports that about three-quarters of students pay within $5,000 of what MyIntuition estimates. He says accuracy is higher for lower income students.

It’s worked so well that 15 colleges now incorporate MyIntuition in their web sites. Wellesley’s Dean of Admisssion and Financial Aid, Joy St. John, thinks she knows why.

“We recognize that many students, quite frankly, are scared away by our sticker price, and we need to be able to quickly communicate to families what the true costs would be for them, and our ability to do that in particular, helps us in recruiting, we believe, low-income and middle-income families,” St. John says.

Colleges can catapult low-income students out of poverty.

It’s something Gregory Chin, a first-generation student from Philadelphia, knows first-hand. He dropped out of school after sixth grade to help his parents. He educated himself in the years he was not attending middle and high school, and is now a student at Tufts University.

“I think the job of colleges and the privilege and the honor that they have is being able to be the main force that bridges the socioeconomic divide in this country, because they really are the equalizer,” Chin says.

But colleges can’t provide social mobility if students think they can’t afford college.

“There are students who are making decisions that are not in their best interest because they do not have correct information, and we’re just trying to correct that,” Levine says.

Most high-achieving low-income students do not apply to any selective college, even though research shows those colleges typically cost them less than community college or less selective colleges.

[Read a Brookings Institute Study on this topic]

“We live in a society where income inequality is very high, [where] levels of social mobility are very low, and where steps that we can take that can enable people who are at the bottom of the distribution to find a way to jump-start the process and move up the ladder are things that we should think of as good things,” says Levine.

“Attending Amherst is actually cheaper than attending a public school for me,” says Amherst college student Mei Zhou, from Nampa, Idaho.

Zhou will be a senior this fall and she found she got a much better offer from Amherst than from public universities.

“Most public schools offer loans in the financial aid packet,” she says. “Amherst doesn’t offer loans, so that helped.”

Amherst College is among the colleges that use Levine’s cost estimator.

“The sticker price is neither what it costs the institution to educate a student,” says Biddy Martin, president of Amherst College. “Nor is it what students and families actually pay.”

“It costs Amherst and colleges of Amherst’s type somewhere in the neighborhood of $90,000 to $100,000 a student to educate them with all expenses in, and the sticker price for tuition, room, board, and fees, is in the $60,000-plus range,” he says.

It is $69,000, in fact.

A large percentage of students, or their parents, do pay full price at Amherst: about 40% of students. But most students receive financial aid, and they pay on average $15,000 a year.

And for the lowest-income families, Martin says attending Amherst comes at very little cost.

“For the highest-need students, we provide full aid, no loans in the financial aid packages, and I think we’re the only elite college that will cost the highest-need students less than $5,000 a year for whatever needs they have once they arrive,” says Martin.

Back at Wellesley, Phillip Levine adds that even the average cost is somewhat irrelevant.

“The question we really want to know the answer to isn’t what the average cost of attendance is,” says Levine. “It’s what does it cost me for my family? What does Wellesley College or any other school going to cost my family?”

Levine has written about how important it is to get high-achieving low-income students to understand that they can afford to attend elite colleges.

Amherst’s financial aid is entirely in the form of grants. The college extends its generosity to students who come in off the waiting list, transfer students, and international students. Biddy Martin points out that a high percentage of Amherst students are from the lowest-income segment of society.

“We have almost a quarter of our student body who are Pell grant recipients, so from the lowest-income groups in the country,” says Martin.

Amherst is able to do it thanks to its $2 billion endowment.

Not every college can do this. Most other schools that offer the most generous financial aid also rely on large endowments. But they have to be able to persuade students that the sticker price is not the real price. Now, they have another tool to do it.

This story was originally published on July 10, 2017 at 6:43 p.m.