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Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 5:58 p.m.
 

There are big differences in the sticker prices at Pittsburgh's three research universities, but a new online service that compares the estimated net price freshmen pay suggests those stickers are misleading.

In 2010-11 Carnegie Mellon University led the pack with a sticker cost of $55,280, with Duquesne following at $39,120 and Pitt at $28,650.

But Collegeabacus.com, a start-up company that recently won a Gates Foundation award for its online college net price comparison calculator, found that the net price — the annual tab including tuition, room and board, supplies and other costs — of attending those schools is the opposite of the sticker prices.

Using Collegeabacus.com and data from a family of four with two college students and a household income between $70,000 and $80,000 a year, Carnegie Mellon came in with an estimated net price of $21,440, Duquesne at $24,087 and Pitt at $25,941.

Welcome to the strange world of college costs, where students have run up more than $1 trillion in loans to pay the bills.

To address the confusion, Congress in 2011 required all colleges to post net price calculators that show the estimated price of a school after grants and aid.

Abigail Seldin and her husband Whitney Haring-Smith, both Rhodes scholars, tapped the concept to create College Abacus.

The Florida couple — she's an anthropologist and he's a business consultant and Pittsburgh native — said they wanted to add transparency and comparability to college pricing.

Their website includes about 2,500 of the nation's 7,000 colleges and universities and they are using their $100,000 Gates Foundation prize to add the rest, Seldin said.

“Before 2011, this wouldn't have been possible,” Seldin said. “We're hoping colleges will see this interest in transparency and realize that families don't want to be left in the dark about the total package costs.”

Marc Harding, chief enrollment officer at the University of Pittsburgh, said most enrollment and financial aid experts support the concept of net price calculators.

“Calculators are a great starting point to give people some idea of what's going on out there,” he said.

Harding said pricey private schools sometimes can tap large endowments to undercut public universities such as Pitt.

“But just remember to take each finding with a grain of salt,” Harding said.

Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert who has testified before Congress and publishes the FastWeb and FinAid websites, said the calculators are helpful planning tools.

“They can tell you whether a college is inside or outside the ball park of affordability. But they can't tell the difference between home plate and center field. I wouldn't rule out a college based on net price,” Kantrowitz said.

Kantrowitz said families should avoid extrapolating an estimate of freshman costs to a four-year total cost.

Linda Anderson, director of financial aid at Carnegie Mellon, said anecdotal evidence suggests many middle-income students sill are not using net price calculators.

She said Carnegie Mellon encourages families to use them and apply for aid.

A college's complete aid package often is one of the last things students receive after they've been accepted.

At Duquesne, incoming students are informed of merit-based aid when they receive their admission letters, but those admitted to the fall 2013 incoming class won't get a bottom line until later this month when need-based aid awards are announced, said Paul-James Cukanna, associate provost for enrollment management.

Cukanna said the calculators help many understand the process.

“Anything that takes the fear out of a student applying to college is a good thing,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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