The Color of Money / Home & Consumer

Color of Money: Helpful Tool on College Costs

WASHINGTON -- My oldest daughter just returned from touring several colleges she's interested in attending next year.

I'm hoping the school on the top of her list will be one of my favorites, North Carolina A&T in Greensboro. I'm also pulling for my alma mater, the University of Maryland, College Park, but she says it's too close to our home, about 17 miles away.

"You won't think it's too close if you have to walk," I said.

Olivia was not amused.

My husband and I have told our daughter that she can apply to any college she likes -- state or private, large or small. But we have saved just enough to cover tuition plus room, board and books for four years based on estimated in-state school expenses. If she gets accepted at a school where the cost is more than the money we have set aside, she has to get scholarships or grants to make up the difference.

She cannot take out any student loans. Nor will we. So all of us need to weigh Olivia's college offers.

This process should be a lot easier, thanks to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It has introduced one of the best college cost tools I've seen, a Financial Aid Comparison Shopper.

In April, about 1.5 million students will be receiving multiple admissions letters, the bureau says. But once they're accepted, their families have to figure out how to pay for school. With total education debt crossing the $1 trillion mark, it's the second largest source of consumer debt after mortgages, according to CFPB Director Richard Cordray.

Students excited about getting into their top pick might not focus on the fact that most of the financial aid they're being offered is in the form of loans. Or the reverse could be true. An elite expensive school might be more affordable when scholarships and grants are added. The problem is that the financial aid information that families receive is presented differently, and often is incomplete and hard to figure out.

"We know that putting student loan debt into context is particularly important for students and parents," Cordray said.

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Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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