Abacus: The Kayak of College Cost Comparisons--Will it sink or swim?

<p>CC members who are struggling with Net Price Calculators and trying to figure out how college costs compare may want to read this CNN MONEY article by Kim Clark:</p>

<p>Battle</a> brewing over cost comparison site for colleges - Nov. 7, 2013 </p>

<p>Abacus, launched this fall, aims to be something like the "Kayak" of college-cost comparisons, and, with my own son soon to enter the admissions fray, I'll be eager to give it a shot. </p>

<p>I haven't tried Abacus yet so I may end up a fan--or not--but the criticisms cited in this story (e.g., Abacus may spur families to choose colleges based only on price tag alone) sound flimsy to me. (Some families do this already; many others just want a clearer look at what their bottom line is likely to be, perhaps even before finalizing a college list.)</p>

<p>But I think that Abacus users--just like Net Price Calculator users--should understand that there are certain factors that influence financial aid awards and merit scholarships that simply cannot be determined by an online calculator.</p>

<p>However, I'd love to hear from families who have tried Abacus already to find out what you liked and didn't.</p>

<p>I tried it recently, their numbers are close to the figures by the npc provided by the colleges. But apparently quite a number of colleges are already blocking that web site.</p>

<p>I can see why some colleges that are overpriced (in terms of net price after financial aid) may not like the idea of greater price transparency in their cost and financial aid. Perhaps these are the same colleges that opposed having net price calculators in the first place. No longer can they hide stingy financial aid policies behind an opaque wall where one has to apply and be admitted to find out what the financial aid and net price for a school looks like.</p>



<p>Maybe not price alone, but by making it easier for students to get financial aid and net price estimates before applying, some students may tend to have “cheaper” application lists than they would have otherwise (at least by eliminating the obviously unaffordable schools).</p>

<p>I would really like to see how close NPCs are for those schools with merit money and that do not guarantee to meet need. I’m sure when one consolidates the stats and results, they will work out, but what about the individual results… I’d like to see poll results as to whether or not the results were within 10% for each person who runs the numbers and then gets their actual awards,</p>



<p>Good idea. I’m going to suggest to Kim Clark that she put together a “study” that compares NPC and Abacus results that participating families get now, in the fall, with the REAL aid awards that the students receive in the spring.</p>

<p>My concerns with online calculators are two-fold:</p>

<li><p>So many of the significant merit scholarship awards are based on a holistic evaluation process (sometimes an interview is even included) that an online calculator can’t begin to “guess” whether a kid will get the biggie full-tuition scholarship or a more routine $2-5K grant (or perhaps nothing at all).</p></li>
<li><p>Online calculators don’t work well for families whose situation is anomalous. And in today’s economy (and world), that’s A LOT of families.</p></li>

<p>But I’ll float the “study” idea to Kim and see if MONEY could oversee something like that. Recently Kim spearheaded another MONEY study that compared Scholarship search engines by bringing in actual high school students to play with the various options. (See <a href=“http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/financial-aid-scholarships/1561081-money-magazine-compares-scholarship-search-sites.html[/url]”>http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/financial-aid-scholarships/1561081-money-magazine-compares-scholarship-search-sites.html</a>). So an experiment like cptofthehouse suggested might be right up her alley.</p>

<p>I agree, Sally. Not much can be done with the holistic factor or the families with unusual finances, even when it’s something as ordinary as owing a family business. </p>

<p>Where I’m curious in particular is with financial aid. I’d be interested in finding out how schools do distribute financial aid. My nephew got a $5K financial aid grant award from a school that does not guarantee to meet need. Would anyone in his financial situation have gotten the same? Does timing of ones application, desireablity of the school to have the student all have significant impact as to which students get full need met, no need met, some need met? What does it mean when the stats are that the average financial aid applicant gets 60% of need met? What would be particularly interesting is how much of the need is met by college money, not by entitlements, federal, state money. It does skew the results when those are in the picture.</p>



<p>An “honest” NPC would only include need-based financial aid and guaranteed-for-stats merit scholarships, not merit awarded on a holistic or subjective basis (or merit hidden as “preferentially-packaged need-based financial aid” given on a holistic or subjective basis). Of course, that would be a pessimal assessment, but that is what students and parents should see, so that they do not assume more than the minimum expectation, and that any additional merit scholarships would be a pleasant surprise.</p>

<p>Great point, Ucbalumnus. I agree fully. </p>

<p>The problem is that there are a sizeable number of merit within need schools. That means Students A and B with identical need, can get different % of need met and in different forms.</p>

<p>Also a lot of the % need met stats are skewed by those accepted with just little need. Easy to meet full need for a kid whose family contribution is only $5K less than the COA. For $5K, that kid is a check mark in the “Full Need Met” column. Do a number of those, and you can be lookin’ might good and generous.</p>

<p>Thanks for all your valuable comments. I would be interested in the kind of research project you’ve suggested. If any parent wants to send me a printout of their NPC results and then later send us their financial aid award from the same school, we’ll try to analyze the results and see if there is any pattern. Any of you who know my work on financialaidletter.com know I will make sure to protect your identity and personal information. We won’t publish anything that will be personally identifiable.</p>

<p>Also, in response to the questions about merit and need-based aid: A growing number of colleges’ NPCs do include questions and criteria about merit aid. Many NPCs designed by the College Board and Student Aid Services (the company that is blocking College Abacus), for example, do adjust awards for both factors. Tulane & SUNY Buffalo do, for example, and I think there is a College Confidential thread listing the NPCs that do. You can find that here: <a href=“http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/financial-aid-scholarships/1346342-net-price-calculators-include-merit-aid.html[/url]”>http://talk.collegeconfidential.com/financial-aid-scholarships/1346342-net-price-calculators-include-merit-aid.html</a></p>

<p>I’d be interested in finding out how schools do distribute financial aid.</p>


<p>As a financial aid director, I am very upfront about how we distribute need-based financial aid. I am not so upfront about non-need based aid, which is awarded based on internal needs; we do not have automatic merit awards. I am definitely not the only aid director in this boat, which is precisely why families need to know that, as Sally says, “there are certain factors that influence financial aid awards and merit scholarships that simply cannot be determined by an online calculator.” </p>

<p>In a simple situation at a FAFSA-only school, or at a Profile school that doesn’t do things like adding back deductions for the self-employed, an NPC can be a help … and an unexpected scholarship can be the icing on the cake, of course.</p>

<p>Kelsmom, do a number of colleges distribute need based financial aid sheerly by protocol on a first come, first admitted, first served basis, or do they take into consideration the stats of the students? For instance, would a 4.0 , student with very high SATs that put the kid in the honor college, in say the 1-5% top ring, be given the exact same package as a kid that squeaks into the school based on stats? I know that a number of selective schools do practive enrollment management but what about the vast majority of schools that do not, cannot provide full need. How do they usually decide who the students are who get most need met vs averages as they report vs little need met, just the government entitlements, for example? </p>

<p>I remember a few years ago, some kids applying to the same schools seemed to have variant need packages. We are not talking mert here, but just need. Some kids got a decent fin aid package, so got nothing. These are were similar schools that did not meet full need for everyone, in fact for few.</p>

<p>It varies by school. I am at a graduate school, so what we do is most likely quite different than what an undergrad school would do. </p>

<p>My previous employers did not practice enrollment management, so I honestly cannot say what is done at the undergrad level. I would bet, though, that it might not always be the high-stat student who gets a better aid package at a school that practices enrollment management in awarding aid. They might be a southern school hoping to get a midwestern student … or an LAC hoping to land a quirky sword-swallower. </p>

<p>Schools work hard to balance their recruitment and retention needs with the money that is available for them to award. It is an art rather than a science.</p>

<p>At your previous school and schools like it, would a high stat student, a top catch for that school, get the same financial aid package as one who very much an average applicant or even squeaking in? No coding from Admissions to differentiate? Also is timing of the awards an important factor as funds run out? I am asking because these are all things that my have a effect on the financial aid.</p>

<p>If you apply and get accepted and get your fin aid things to fin aid ASAP, early in the cycle, like you are one of the first packages to be processed, would you be more likely to have full need met than if you are one of the last? What rules are in place for any university funds, grants that are from the college itself in terms of distribution? By need? By timing? By how much the school wants the student? I’m not targeting your old school, by the way, but just what you have seen in general at a school that did not practice enrollment management, did not meet full need most of the time. Do such school look at what money is left and try to fund more kids fully or close to it, and gap those with a lot of need or do they give more to those who need more, or do it proportionally? There is no way a NPC can take all of those factors into consideration.</p>

<p>The other thing about merit awards…unless they are guaranteed based on stats, all bets are off. Some kids will get them and others won’t…at the same college. I’m not sure how that can be reconciled with an online calculator.</p>

<p>At your previous school and schools like it, would a high stat student, a top catch for that school, get the same financial aid package as one who very much an average applicant or even squeaking in? No coding from Admissions to differentiate? </p>


<p>Yes, the financial aid package for a high stat student would be the same as for an average or below average student. There was no coding by admissions. If a high stat student got an honors scholarship (these were awarded outside of our office), grants he would otherwise have received would not be offered. For example, we packaged aid so that all students would have a combination of EFC and free money from the school that covered the average cost of tuition. Let’s say the EFC was 6000 and the average cost of tuition was 9400. The student would get a need based grant of $3400. However, if the student was awarded an honors scholarship of $3000 the grant would be $400. We worked with the scholarship office to get the institutional scholarships posted before initial packages were offered. Outside scholarships did not reduce the grant - just institutional - because the goal was to maximize the use of institutional funds to help as many students as possible. </p>

<p>Also is timing of the awards an important factor as funds run out? I am asking because these are all things that my have a effect on the financial aid.</p>


<p>Timing is everything. Our promise was to fund those students who applied by the priority deadline. After the deadline, aid was only awarded until funding was gone.</p>

<p>We did not promise to meet need, nor did we have the funds to do so. Our financial aid process was independent of admissions. As I mentioned, we had a target EFC/free money number. Say the music school really wanted a student. They might offer a $1000 departmental scholarship to sweeten the pot if a student was waffling about commiting. If the student had an institutional grant of $3000, though, it would be reduced to $2000 when we found out about the departmental scholarship. This did create tension at times. On the other hand, if the student filed the FAFSA after all the SEOG ran out, he would still get the same amount of money … just more from school funding than he would have had if part of it was from SEOG.</p>

<p>I believe many (possibly most) schools that do not meet need award aid independent of anything other than the EFC. However, I suspect that there are schools that offer aid packages based on how much they want the student. It’s just my gut feeling, though. Schools generally do not discuss this sort of thing with other schools. In fact, because grad schools are not required to report any financial aid info, I can’t compare my own school with peer schools … other than from anecdotal evidence based on conversations with students.</p>

<p>thumper, you are correct. This is the “icing on the cake” that some will find a very pleasant surprise. It’s one of the reservations I had about the NPC when it came out. I feel like students who might have a good chance of getting such a scholarship may choose not to apply. Then again, the NPC is better than nothing for those who have no frame of reference for how aid works.</p>

<p>Since the school did not guarantee to meet full need, and did not for most students, how could it possibly give every student who appled by the priority date the difference between EFC and tution? I’m going to assume that the schools common data would show that the school met X% of need for all the students who qualifed for it. The example you gave shows the school meeting meeting the differential between tution cost and EFC. So am I right to assume that the school ignored the portion of EFC attributable to room, board, transportation, books, supplies, etc? Because otherwise that means that the school would make sure that every single student would be guaranteed to get grants up to the EFC for tution purposes. So for those with a zero EFC, tution is free, and Direct loans are available to offset the other costs, or are those also in the picture to meet tution costs up to EFC? Again, just for those who apply by the priority date.</p>

<p>I am interested because if this is a typical model, than many students would have that option of going to that local state school paying no more than EFC and maybe even having Direct Loans to put towards it. Now in my state, the cost of tuition is low enough at the state schools that the Direct Loans are enough to meet most of the tuition cost for those whose EFC exceeds the cost of tuition. Now that I think about it, the cost of tuition is covered mostly by PELL and even more funds available from TAP for those who do have need. I wonder what a school would do that has insufficient funds to meet that full tution need,. Schools in states where the state tution is high so there are a lot of people for whom there is a gap between EFC and tuition, and no state funds like TAP to kick in.</p>



<p>…because most LACs have to settle for run of the mill sword swallowers, the quirky ones are special ;)</p>

<p>OHMomof2, I don’t know any sword-swallowers personally, but I would bet most are quirky! I have a fire-eating student now … he is quirky and wonderful (wonderfully quirky?). :)</p>

<p>cpt, to answer your questions: Yes, the commitment was to award this to every student who applied by the priority deadline, and direct loans were not part of the equation. This is called equity packaging. It probably caused ulcers for those who had estimated the cost & had to hope against hope that the final numbers came within budget estimates. The truth is that even though this school had a huge Pell population, there were still many, many students who received no grant money … because their EFC was greater than the target number. It helped the neediest students, as was the plan. And yes, these students could borrow, too. There are plenty of costs other than tuition, and the tuition number was “average,” so many students had higher tuition costs than the target number - and there are costs in addition to tuition that direct loans help to cover. But it was a real help for so many students.</p>

<p>Pell doesn’t come close to covering tuition at Michigan public universities, and the very small Michigan grant some students get is not a lot to add to the mix. A 0 EFC student may have received something like $5600 Pell, $1000 SEOG, and $3200 university grant. A student with an EFC of 1500 might have received $4000 Pell and $4300 university grant. A student with an EFC of 7000 would have received $2800 university grant. This was done during the big economic meltdown, which actually began in our state several years earlier than in the rest of the country. The money was a very intentional commitment on the part of the school’s board of governors to increase access for those who needed the most help.</p>