Taking the Guess Work Out of College Costs

Last Updated Aug 12, 2011 5:13 PM EDT

Visiting colleges is fun. Paying for them isn't. And waiting to see what the bill will be is often excruciating.
Historically college prices may as well have been shrouded by Harry Potter's invisibility cloak. Most families didn't have a clue to what kind of goodies might be revealed in acceptance letters or financial aid packages.

The big financial surprises, whether good or bad, often didn't arrive for a family until spring. That has never given parents much time to figure out their finances before their college deposits are due.

Predicting College Costs

There is very good news, however, for this year's crop of high school seniors. Teenagers and their parents will no longer have to guess at what the price tags of colleges on their lists will cost.

The federal government is requiring the nation's colleges and universities to post net price calculators on their web sites by late October. These net price calculators are intended to provide a teenager with the price he or she must pay for any school in the country.

Using the calculators, some teenagers will discover that a $50,000 private college will cost them less than a low-cost state school. On the other hand, some families will discover that they won't qualify for any financial aid or merit aid and that a $50,000 school will cost that much.

The First Generation of College Calculators

Will the net price calculators be perfect? No.

Some calculators, for instance, are going to be too simple. The calculator template developed by the federal government asks fewer questions than many college calculators developed by other sources. I'm sure there will be plenty of fine tuning after they are rolled out.

The best thing you can do with these calculators is use them before your child's college list calcifies. Unless you don't mind paying full price, don't let your teenager apply to schools where the chances of getting money are nil.

Lynn O'Shaughnessy is author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and she also writes her own college blog at The College Solution.

More on CBS MoneyWatch:

Finding Schools With the Right College Major
What's Wrong With America's Dream Colleges
Net price calculator image by Afroswede. CC 2.0.