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Finding out real cost of college not easy in Pennsylvania

| Monday, April 6, 2015, 10:39 p.m.
SmartAsset.com, an online financial data and technology company, published a new college education affordability index. The index, available at SmartAsset.com, weighs tuition, living costs, average aid awards, student retention and graduates’ average starting salaries to rank colleges for return on investment. The University of Pittsburgh was the only public university in the state to break the top 10.
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SmartAsset.com, an online financial data and technology company, published a new college education affordability index. The index, available at SmartAsset.com, weighs tuition, living costs, average aid awards, student retention and graduates’ average starting salaries to rank colleges for return on investment. The University of Pittsburgh was the only public university in the state to break the top 10.

Want to know how much a college education will really cost and what a student considering a major at a specific university will earn after graduation?

Good luck, if you're living in Pennsylvania.

Students here and elsewhere can use federally mandated online net price calculators at every college to get a picture of real costs, minus grants and aid.

But coupling that information with accurate information about projected earnings at graduation is another matter.

A number of states, including Colorado, Minnesota, Virginia and Texas, have pioneered online tools that do exactly that: coupling college data, down to specific majors, with employment data to give families an idea what they are getting into financially and what they might hope to realize at graduation.

Mark S. Schneider, vice president of the American Research Institute and former commissioner at the National Center for Educational Statistics, has worked with states across the country to make such data available to the public through collegemeasures.org.

Schneider said efforts to make data available in Pennsylvania died because of holes in data collection procedures here and questions about who owns the numbers.

Experts say those numbers are growing increasingly important as students take on more debt to finance college.

Mamie Voight of the Institute for Higher Education Policy said getting such information to families and students is critical.

“That can be helpful as students determine what to major in. It's especially important for low-income students who have to finance college through debt to see what it is going to cost and what they are going to earn,” Voight said.

Schneider stressed the importance of those calculations.

“I don't do this for me. I do it for (students),” he said.

Although they don't have access to such data from the state, Pennsylvania families can tap a growing array of online tools that purport to fill the gap.

A spokeswoman for SmartAsset.com, an online financial data and technology company, said its goal was publishing a new college education affordability index.

The index, available at SmartAsset.com, weighs tuition, living costs, average aid awards, student retention and graduates' average starting salaries to rank colleges for return on investment.

SmartAsset's 10 “most affordable” schools in Pennsylvania includes a diverse group of private colleges and universities, many of which carry a high sticker price, but provide significant student aid. They range from tiny Westminster College in Lawrence County, which topped the list, to schools with a heavy emphasis on science and engineering like Carnegie Mellon University, Lehigh and the University of Pennsylvania.

The University of Pittsburgh was the only public university in the state to break the top 10.

“People see college costs are rising so quickly and have started to question, ‘Is it worth it to pay those high prices?' ” said index editor A.J. Smith. “I think this is going to surprise people. There are those certain schools that have long lines out there, and this shows you there are other schools that give you a good return on investment of paying for college.”

Others, like Schneider, caution that looking at average starting salaries for an entire university, instead of numbers for specific majors and programs, can skewer results.

“If you have a technical school that is graduating a lot of computer scientists and engineers, you look totally different than a school that is graduating a lot of liberal arts or humanities majors,” Schneider said.

Financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz recommended comparing net price and expected debt levels — how much a student would expect to borrow over four years — to the average starting salaries in specific disciplines.

“If total debt is less than annual starting salaries, you can afford to pay those loans in 10 years or less. Those are two measures that are easy to apply without getting into ranking colleges on an estimate of lifetime earnings that may not apply to you,” Kantrowitz said.

Kantrowitz said information on sites such as payscale.com, which lists an estimated 20-year return on investment for students in specific programs at given colleges, can be useful, but cautioned that the site doesn't cover every school.

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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