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Some colleges make it more difficult to compare costs

The costs of college textbooks continue to rise.
The costs of college textbooks continue to rise. MCT

An undergraduate degree from a flagship state university often comes with a six-figure sticker price for on-campus residents. A private college could cost a quarter of a million dollars nowadays.

So since 2011, the federal government has required all schools to provide something called a net price calculator on their websites. You put in some financial data, and the calculator estimates what your actual cost would be, after any scholarships. If you aren’t among the very affluent and are applying to a private college, that net price can be tens of thousands of dollars below the list price.

Not long after the calculator became standard, a service called College Abacus emerged, allowing families to compare multiple schools at once. That spared them the laborious task of plugging the same data into multiple calculators many times over.

And how did many colleges respond? By blocking College Abacus’ access to their calculators. Imagine if Expedia or Kayak could not search for tickets on some of the most desirable airlines, and you get the idea.

Recently, I asked some of these colleges some pointed questions. Choosing which school to attend is one of the biggest financial decisions that many people will ever make. And unlike other similarly consequential decisions about what house to buy or where to invest your retirement money, there is precious little data to use when picking a college. So why on earth would a school want to make it harder for people to compare the potential costs, which is one bit of data that actually is readily available?

At first, College Abacus left plenty of reasons for schools to be suspicious. Would it charge users? Sell their data? Ultimately, it decided not to do either. It’s now a unit of the ECMC Group, which, among other things, represents the federal government in bankruptcy court when debtors try to discharge their student loan debt. That alone probably raises some eyebrows, though no school officials I spoke to said this.

One upside of ECMC’s ownership is that the federal government requires the company to engage in financial literacy efforts. College Abacus helps fulfill that mission and thus does not need to earn any revenue. The company also created a tool, called Pell Abacus, specifically for low-income families.

Colleges also worry about College Abacus’ accuracy. It works by gathering the questions that each calculator asks, sometimes combining similar ones from different schools, and then putting them all in one place, though you can compare only three colleges at a time on its site. Then, it takes the answers to all the questions, puts them into the three calculators, collects the results and displays all of the estimates on one page. And they are indeed estimates; applicants do not receive actual offers until after they have applied and been accepted.

Abigail Seldin, co-founder of College Abacus, has repeatedly urged financial aid officials to call her with their concerns and allow her to test the results. Hamilton, which at first blocked Abacus but then lifted the block, decided to take her up on the challenge, and it did find one significant problem. Seldin said the company fixed the problem within 24 hours.

So why are schools such as Caltech, Harvard or Princeton still blocking? If only we knew. Harvard did not comment at all. At Caltech, Kathy Svitil, a spokeswoman, said the decision-maker there was too busy to talk to me. I asked one question via email and did not get a response.

At Princeton, a spokeswoman, Min Pullan, said it was not possible to find anyone to speak with me and emailed the following statement: “Princeton University has its own financial aid calculator, which is available to the public and is more accurate in presenting cost and aid calculations for prospective students. Therefore, we do not see the need for an external tool.”

I asked her to explain how College Abacus’ efforts would be less accurate and expressed wonder at the notion that the desire to compare multiple schools at once would not qualify as a “need.” She responded by saying that the university had nothing further to add.

So what’s really going on here? One strong hint comes from a letter that Seldin received from a dean of financial aid. He wrote to her after she sent a mass note last year urging the schools that were blocking her tool to reconsider. She declined to identify him, as she still hopes to win him and others over.

“We are experiencing record student demand, engage families early in financial aid discussions and are meeting our goals,” the dean told her. “Why you think I should open myself up to a purely financial comparison when we are so much more than that, I have no idea. It is probably because you have not sat where I sit. So, kindly cease communication with me.”

I have no doubt that colleges, especially those that do not have endowments big enough to meet the full financial needs of each accepted student, are worried about the consequences of “direct financial comparisons.” But to deliberately throw up roadblocks that prevent easy comparisons is to turn up an institution’s collective nose at anyone with even the mildest pecuniary concerns.

Many of these schools would much prefer that prospective students spend far more time on their individual websites and use each of their calculators one by one. There, the colleges can surround the results with sunny explainers and Instagram-worthy pictures. They are selling an expensive product, after all, and have strict goals to meet for each class. They are increasingly focused on numbers, carefully calibrating their aid offers to make sure that the average amount paid by members of the freshman class hits a specific financial target. (Even if the schools are “so much more than that.”)

But that is no excuse for standing in the way of making the process easier for families. If the schools worry that students will abandon their research based on an unfriendly result from College Abacus’ calculator, they are probably selling most families short. Given the magnitude of the financial decision, complete with teary-eyed teenagers who set their hearts on an expensive dream school, of course the families will approach the schools directly for more information. Often, they'll come in search of a different, better financial answer.

Moreover, schools that stand in the way of making data easier to use are failing to recognize families’ desperation for numbers that can help them make comparisons. If you want to know how much your child might learn, how much happier they might be, what kind of relationships they might forge, well, good luck. Maybe it’s impossible to get good data to answer those questions. Or perhaps most colleges simply aren’t tracking or publicizing such things, with few exceptions.

The results of the net price calculators, however, are there for all to see, if only because the federal government forced the schools’ hands. And those schools that deliberately make it harder for families to compare their net prices are sending their own telling signal to the marketplace of applicants.

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