At this point, it's an old story: College costs are wildly out of control. Americans owe more on student loans than they do on credit cards. Tuition costs have ballooned – even at public universities – and state budget costs could push them even higher.
So is college worth the ever-increasing investment? In most cases, it's not, says William Bennett, President Reagan's former education secretary and co-author of a new book, "Is College Worth It?"
Nearly half of those who start a four-year college don't finish, he points out. Of those who did graduate in 2011, half are unemployed or radically underemployed. By his reckoning, only 150 of America's 3,500 colleges are worth it. Topping his list for return on investment are Harvey Mudd College, California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, and Princeton.
Many families might not identify with Mr. Bennett's conservative philosophy. But there's mounting evidence that financial pressures are forcing them to change the way they pick a college. Instead of stretching to pay for a dream school, many are looking first for the best value.
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"I've been doing this 11 years, and definitely in the last three, there's been a lot more questions about financial aid and attention to how much college actually costs," says Lenny Libenzon, the guidance coordinator at Brookline High School in Brookline, Mass. "We spend much more time discussing it."
But finding the best value isn't always easy, which is why educators and policymakers are pushing to make school costs more transparent and easier to compare. Here are some of the efforts under way:
The Obama administration has made sweeping efforts to make the price of college more straightforward. In February, the Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center unveiled its "College Scorecard," a searchable database that provides information on a university's net cost, graduation rate, and students' average monthly federal loan payment after graduation.
The scorecard has "the potential to be a game changer for higher education," wrote the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit advocacy group with offices in Washington, D.C., and Oakland, Calif., in a statement upon the scorecard's release.
Individual schools, too, are now required to have price calculators on their websites. Other tools include finaid.org and naviance.com, websites that help prospective college students find private scholarships and loan options.
"It's a baby step in the right direction," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of fastweb.com and finaid.org. Now that schools are required to have their net costs laid out up front, the sticker shock can have real effects. "We find that if the price between two schools is less than $1,000, people tend to focus on other things. Above $5,000, price takes precedence. In between, people agonize."
One reason: The lure of going to the best school remains strong. In the most recent survey by the University of Califoria at Los Angeles of nearly 200,000 new college freshmen, academic reputation was the top factor in picking a school. But cost of attendance was characterized as "very important" by 43.3 percent of students – that factor's highest mark to date.
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The data is still a little skewed, especially in regard to loans. At Florida State University, for instance, the net price is $12,464 and the median monthly loan payment is $215.78. At Harvard, the net price is $6,000 higher, but the monthly loan payments are lower, at $88.61, presumably because fewer students take out federal loans. Schools with a high dropout rate can also look like a better deal because fewer students accumulate a full four years of debt.
Another way to look for a good deal is through a list of best value schools, such as the one in Bennett's book or online rankings from U.S. News & World Report or the Princeton Review.