How Much Is That College in the Window?

Denise Trowbridge

'Tis the season - to fill out college applications. Yes, in addition to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's, millions of parents and students also experience the joy of applying for college this time of year. The good news is there's a new tool that makes it easier to compare colleges and their costs.

In mid-September, the U.S. Department of Education released its College Scorecard, a free, searchable database that allows you to compare vital statistics from two- and four-year degree programs. The data, which are presented in simple, easy-to-decipher graphs, include the average actual cost to attend (versus the often jaw-dropping sticker price), graduation rate, average amount of federal loans borrowed per student and the average earnings of students 10 years after entering college. The goal of the database, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is to "provide a snapshot about an institution's cost and value to help families make smart decisions about where to enroll."

The database is at collegescorecard.ed.gov. Check out the online version of this story for a chart I compiled with stats for popular Ohio universities.

The information and tools College Scorecard provides are incredibly handy. An online calculator estimates what you would likely pay out of pocket after financial aid. Another section breaks down the average cost to attend a school but organizes it relative to family income. For example, Denison University in Granville has a sticker price of $46,250 for the 2015-2016 school year. The database indicates the average student actually pays $23,507. Students whose parents make between $30,001 and $48,000 pay an average of $11,792, while students whose parents earn more than $110,000 pay an average of $32,468.

The scorecard also shows what percentage of students graduate with loan debt; the total average debt per student; average monthly loan payments, as well as how many students are actually able to pay back those loans. At Denison, 52 percent of students receive federal loans, and the average total debt is $25,000. About 95 percent of those kids are paying loans back, at an average cost of $278 a month.

As college costs soar, the nagging question has become whether the cost of getting a degree will pay off. There's no easy answer to that, but, thanks to the scorecard, we get a glimpse of how well students are doing financially 10 years after entering college. The database uses IRS data to track actual incomes. Back to Denison: Its graduates earn an average of $48,600 a decade after entering college, which is about $14,000 more than the national average for all college graduates who had received financial aid. Also, per the data, 64 percent of Denison grads earn more than workers with only a high-school diploma by that 10-year mark.

The College Scorecard also crunches some interesting numbers. It provides lists of two-year colleges at which graduates earn high salaries after graduation, a list of 30 four-year schools with low costs and high graduation rates and another list of 15 public colleges with high graduation rates and high salaries.

The College Scorecard isn't a substitute for that deep-down butterfly feeling when a school is perfect for your child, nor the security of holding an actual financial-aid package in your hand, but it can be a helpful tool in making many higher-education decisions this spring.

-Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, bankrate.com and middlepathfinance.com.