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Best ways to figure out what college really costs

  • At private colleges and universities, few students and families pay the full listed price.
  • A Wellesley College economist developed an online calculator that can estimate private school expenses by answering simple questions about your finances in three minutes.
  • You can receive more precise estimates using a school's net price calculator and other online tools, but they require more financial details and time.

It's easy to go into sticker shock when looking at the full price of private colleges and universities.

For this 2016-17 academic year, the average published tuition and fees at private colleges and universities rose 3.6 percent from the past academic year to $33,480, according to the College Board. When you factor in room and board, the College Board estimates the average private-school student will pay a total of $45,370 this academic year.

Like many major purchases, there is the listed price on the brochure and the price you will really pay. The College Board found that more than 70 percent of full-time students receive grant aid to help them pay for college.

"The majority of students aren't paying the sticker prices at private institutions. We need to make it easier to talk about the relevant prices," said Phillip Levine, a Wellesley College economist who developed MyinTuition, a new simple cost calculator used by 15 schools, including Columbia, Dartmouth and Vassar.

Here's how MyinTuition works: You answer eight questions about your income, investments and home ownership to come up with an estimated range of costs. The tool takes about three minutes to complete if you know roughly how much you make each year, what your house is worth and how much you have saved and invested.

The tool, which was launched April 19, gives you estimates for the expected parent and student contribution as well as what scholarships, financial aid and student loans may look like for someone in your financial situation.

Levine claims that the estimates are accurate for approximately 90 percent of families with the same financial profile, though a more detailed analysis may vary considerably from what MyinTuition provides.

"The majority of students aren't paying the sticker prices at private institutions." -Phillip Levine, developer of MyinTuition

Thirteen more colleges have expressed interest in using MyinTuition since it launched and the tool has produced more than 20,000 estimates in the first two and a half days since it went live, Levine said.

If you want to know more about how much college may really cost, consider these other online tools:

Net price calculators

Most colleges have a net price calculator on their websites to help students determine the cost of college after scholarships and grants.

However, these tools require students and parents to enter in more details about their income and assets that may take longer to find than using MyinTuition.

"[MyinTuition] is a simplified version of a net price calculator. It reduces the number of questions. This reduces the accuracy of the net price calculation, but makes the tool easier to use," said Mark Kantrowitz, vice president of strategy for college and scholarship search site Cappex.com.

College Navigator

Instead of using MyinTuition, Kantrowitz recommends that families look up the "Net Price" table on CollegeNavigator.gov, which is run by the Department of Education, to get a rough idea of the costs that they may pay.

More from College Game Plan:
Use the '2K rule' to save for your kid's college education
Five schools whose grads earn the big bucks
New York approves free tuition. Here are 10 more states with cheap college costs

The downside to that approach is that the latest cost data on CollegeNavigator is from the 2014-15 academic year.

College Scorecard

Student loan debt
Getty Images

Many students underestimate the cost of college. Only 41 percent of high school seniors expect to borrow to finance their degree, according to a new survey by student loan servicer Navient and education technology EverFi. However, 61 percent of students who go on to graduate college take out loans, according to the College Board.

College Scorecard, another website from the Department of Education, can help students and their families figure their financing needs.

The site shows users the average cost, graduation rates and salary after attending for most colleges and universities. You also can find the percentage of people who take out student loans when they attend a school and their average debt loads.

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