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College can be cheaper than you think, according to new calculations

If sticker shock is preventing you from applying to your dream college, you may have reason to reconsider.

Most students don’t pay the published price at a college or university, thanks to financial aid and scholarships. A new set of lower prices reflects that more realistic figure.

Right now, families can learn the average cost of a college, known as the “net price,” by going to the U.S. Department of Education’s College Navigator website (nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator).

And by Oct. 29, 2011, all public and private universities must have calculators on their websites that can estimate costs for an individual freshman.

Some schools, including Lynn University Bachelor’s, master’s & online degrees in Boca Raton, have already developed the calculators and deployed them online.

“I see this as a big game changer,” said Linda Cox Maguire, executive vice president of Maguire Associates, a Massachusetts-based higher education consulting firm. “It’s going to change the way colleges communicate with families and give families better information on what they can expect.”

In some cases, the difference between published and net prices is dramatic. While the total cost of attending the University of Miami was listed as $49,950 for 2008-09, the average student paid $26,758.

That same year, the average student at Harvard University paid $16,156, less than a third of the $50,250 sticker price.

The net price figures are based on how much a student pays after factoring in federal, state and institutional aid. The calculators do not factor in prepaid tuition plans, work study or student loans.

Terri Roher, a career and college adviser at College Academy@Broward College, thinks the calculator will persuade families to ignore the sticker price when applying to a college. She’s been trying to do that, with limited success.

“It’s not too difficult to convince the students of this, but it’s almost impossible to relay that to their parents,” Roher said. “I think this will be very helpful.”

Some say the net price calculator could change the dialog about the cost of college.

Last year, the Florida Legislature gave public universities the authority to raise tuition by 15 percent a year. That raised concerns about whether families could afford state universities.

But Florida State University recently reviewed its student records and found that fewer than 10 percent of students actually paid the $4,566 published price for tuition and fees. That was largely because of Bright Futures merit-based scholarships and, to a lesser degree, federal Pell Grants.

“Fifteen percent just sounds large. But the facts are that 15 percent is very small because we hand out $115 million” in financial aid, FSU President Eric Barron said. “The tuition increases have had very little effect on the pocketbooks of students or their parents at Florida State University.”

The FSU review didn’t factor in housing, books or meals, which are included in the federal government’s net price calculations. The College Navigator site lists the total published cost for an FSU in-state student as $17,452 during 2008-09, and the net price as $11,945.

Among private colleges in 2009, 83 percent of students received a discount off the published sticker price, according to a 2009 study by the National Association of College and University Business Officers. The average award covered 53.5 percent of mandatory tuition and fees, the survey showed.

Jenny Bacallao, 20, of West Palm Beach, said she thought she would not be able to afford a private university when she was a freshman in 2008. It looked like her first choice, Palm Beach Atlantic University, would cost about $25,900 for tuition, fees and books, or $34,238 if she lived on campus.

But when Bacallao, who had a Bright Futures scholarship, talked to university financial aid officials, she learned there was a lot of other aid available, including a $2,500 grant that Florida gives to students at private colleges. There also were PBAU-specific scholarships.

She said her total expenses, including on-campus housing, are about $6,000 a year. She thinks the net price calculator will help persuade other students that schools aren’t always as expensive as they seem.

“I’m paying less than many students who go to public universities, and that just blows my mind,” she said.

While the federal calculator requirements apply only to freshman costs, some schools are expanding beyond that. Nova Southeastern University in Davie is developing one for its graduate programs, attended by the bulk of its students.

“We like to be competitive, and we believe we are a very good value,” said Elaine Brenner, associate director of enrollment and student services. “This will be a positive thing in recruiting. I think people are going to be pleasantly surprised to find out they can afford a private education.”


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