TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Shedding light on the true magnitude of college costs and student debt

Consumers avidly price-shop for the most expensive purchase in their lives (houses) and the third-most expensive purchase in their lives (cars) — but when it comes to the second-most expensive purchase, emotions (“Whoa, is that a rock-climbing wall?”) sometimes override dollars-and-cents. That would be a college education.

As of July 1, there is less excuse than ever for choosing a college without full knowledge of all of the accompanying costs, both direct (tuition, fees) and indirect (living expenses). That’s because the U.S. Department of Education has gone live with a site, the “College Affordability and Transparency Center,” that statistically breaks down costs — and cost trends — in higher education.

Under a 2008 federal law, the Higher Education Opportunity Act, Congress directed colleges to report — and the DOE to gather — more detailed information about the cost of higher education and the true magnitude of student debt.

The DOE was required by law to post a “college affordability list” by July 1 giving school-shoppers more information about the actual out-of-pocket costs of each college and university, and how those costs have changed in recent years.

Other provisions of the HEOA law, which went into effect previously, require colleges to make available a “calculator” enabling families to discern the net cost of multiple years’ worth of tuition, fees and living expenses, and to gather and publish survey information about the debt load of student aid recipients. All of this information should be readily available directly from the institution upon request.

Journalists using the DOE “transparency center” site should proceed with caution and always check with the institution if numbers (like a 1,000% tuition increase in four years, as the DOE’s statistics dubiously suggest occurred at some schools) seem inaccurate.