It's not just one year's price times four. Tuition and fees will probably go up. Aid levels will change. It's hard to know how much a student is likely to have to borrow.
For the typical family, college is one of life's big-ticket purchases. But figuring out how much it will cost can be difficult. Finding out a particular college's sticker price is easy, but the amount a particular family will actually pay is revealed only after students are admitted and receive their financial-aid awards. Even then the numbers can be confusing.
Recently the federal government has required colleges to post net-price calculators on their Web sites, estimating personalized prices. It has encouraged them to use a standard "Financial Aid Shopping Sheet" to display students' actual out-of-pocket costs. Whether these efforts to promote transparency are making much of a difference is not yet clear.
But either way, they have a glaring limitation: They all focus on what students will have to fork over for a single year of college when, presumably, they plan to complete an entire degree. "We talk about net price," says Sundar Kumarasamy, vice president for enrollment management and marketing at the University of Dayton, "but we don't talk about four-year net price."
It's not just one year's price times four. Tuition and fees will probably go up. Students' level of aid can change because of their financial circumstances or grades—or because their state runs out of money in its grant program, or the federal government changes a policy, or the college has front-loaded its grant aid. College administrators know all of that; the average family probably does not.
That uncertainty makes it especially hard to know how much a student is likely to borrow. In many cases, students and their parents are scraping things together one year at a time—a mistake encouraged by the way colleges communicate with them. "The lack of sophistication about how you are going to pay for college is breathtaking," says David W. Strauss, a principal with the Art & Science group, a consulting firm. What if students were told upfront how much they would have to pay for their entire degree?