This spring, millions of high school seniors are contemplating their college choices for next fall. Near the beach? Closer to big-city life at campuses in Seattle, San Francisco or NYC? Tucked into a smaller, more intimate college setting?
In addition to where, another equally critical calculation in deciding which college to attend is how much. With college costs at budget-breaking levels, there has been a push to make the college-cost comparisons easier for families.
For too many families, the how-to-pay-for-college equation has been "complex and confusing," said Rohit Chopra, student loan ombudsman for the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Under its Know Before You Owe project, the CFPB wants to arm students and parents "with clear information and a clear set of facts" before they take out costly student loans. To strip away the confusion, the CFPB's first effort in 2012 was the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, which is a streamlined, easy-to-read template that colleges can use to send out financial aid information to their prospective students. It includes details on the school's graduation rates, loan defaults and other data.
On its website, the CFPB's Paying for College section lets students plug in numbers from schools, three at a time, to make comparisons of first-year college costs. It also shows your potential student loan debt at graduation.
"Even if they haven't received their financial aid offer from their school, they can use it to make estimates," said Chopra. For example, if a student decides to live in cheaper, off-campus housing, that choice can affect how much they might need to borrow.
The motivation behind such tools is trying to ensure that college students don't blithely rack up tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, which can drag down their post-college financial life and even have an impact on their future career choices.