MONEY College

Why It’s So Tough To Find Out the True Cost of College

calculator missing keys
Good luck finding your college's net price calculator. Larry Washburn—Getty Images/fStop

Schools are supposed to help prospective students figure out the real price in advance. Actually finding the calculator is another matter.

U.S. colleges have started, however reluctantly, to share more information about what students might actually pay to attend—the so-called net price. But the calculators that Congress has forced schools to provide since 2011 are often hard to find, vary widely in quality, and should be used with some caution.

The idea behind the law was to give families a rough, individualized estimate of what college might cost them once scholarships and grants are deducted from the sticker price. (Loans are not supposed to be included in the net price figure since borrowing increases rather than decreases the cost of education.)

A realistic estimate of costs would give families much better information before a child applies. Previously they only got true cost information after the student was accepted and had been offered financial aid.

But many people, including parents and even high school counselors, are not aware the calculators exist, said college consultant Lynn O’Shaughnessy, who runs TheCollegeSolution.com website.

Some colleges do not seem eager to enlighten them, even though the U.S. Department of Education last year urged schools to post the tools prominently in logical places.

One quarter of the 50 colleges randomly selected by the Institute for College Access and Success did not have links to their calculators on the financial aid or costs sections of their sites. Even when the calculator was on a relevant page, it was rarely posted prominently, the survey found.

Five of the 50 schools confused matters further by using some other name for the tool, such as “education cost calculator” or “tuition calculator.”

The survey was conducted in 2012, but not much has changed, TICAS president Lauren Asher said last week.

To find New York University’s calculator, for instance, users must click on three tabs—”Admissions,” “Financial Aid and Scholarships,” and finally “Financial Aid at NYU.” At University of Pennsylvania, it takes four clicks to find the net price calculator, which is highlighted in a small blue box.

Harvard College, by contrast, posts its calculator on its financial aid home page, under the headline “You Can Afford Harvard.”

Families often can find the elusive tools by entering the college’s name and “net price calculator” into a search engine.

Another place to find links to net price calculators is on each college’s information page on the College Board’s Big Future site. This provides other critical aid information, such as the percentage of financial need each college meets.

One other potentially helpful tool is average net prices by income, or what other people actually paid. It can be found at the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Wide Range of Results

The relevance and accuracy of all this information can be questionable, though.

The difference between calculator estimates and actual costs for many families will be as little as $500, but for some, the gap could be as wide as $5,000, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of education resource website Edvisors.com.

The TICAS report said many colleges used outdated cost information in their net price calculators. In addition, 40% included estimates of “self-help,” including work study and loans, and most made this lower “estimated remaining cost” figure more prominent than the federally required net price.

The calculators also vary dramatically in their design and the amount of information they require. The number of questions range from eight to 70, as some schools want the calculator to be as easy to use as possible, while others try for the most accurate results.

College access advocates such as TICAS worry that fewer families will complete the calculator if it is too complex or requires information that can only be gleaned from tax returns.

On the other side, consultants like O’Shaughnessy say the simplified versions’ estimates can be far off base.

“Generally, the more questions asked by a net price calculator, the more accurate the results,” Kantrowitz says. But he cautioned families against relying too heavily on the result of any calculator.

“Net price calculators provide a ballpark estimate of the real cost of the college,” Kantrowitz says. “They tell you whether the college is inside or outside the ballpark of affordability but do not distinguish between home plate and center field.”

More on college costs:

 

TIME Saving & Spending

The Problem With Millennials, In One Staggering Statistic

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KC Photography—Getty Images/Flickr RF

It's almost unbelievably bad

New data about how much debt today’s students are graduating college with just came out. The results are ugly, but that’s not the worst of it.

The Project on Student Debt conducted by The Institute for College Access & Success says the average debt load carried by last year’s crop of four-year nonprofit college grads is $28,400. That number is several hundred dollars higher than last year and roughly ten grand more than the average a decade ago. Roughly seven in 10 students today graduate with debt, a figure that has ticked up in that time period, as well.

This number would likely be even higher if for-profit colleges, which were included in previous tallies but left out this year because many failed to provide data, were included, since their students tend to leave school burdened with debt at a higher rate — 88% indebted with at average of nearly $40,000 in 2012.

That’s bad — but that’s not the problem. You might think these young adults would be worried about paying off a new car’s worth of debt they’d accrued before getting their first full-time job.

Nope.

A new study from Junior Achievement USA and PwC US conducted by Ypulse finds that 24% of millennials think their student loans will be forgiven.

“It’s a scary statistic,” Junior Achievement president Jack Kosakowski tells CNBC. The survey doesn’t explore why roughly a quarter of young people have such an optimistic — and for the majority, unrealistic — expectation.

In many cases, the payments they expect to be forgiven are significant. “Loan payments are also rising, taking a significant chunk out of Millennials’ pay checks when it comes time to pay up post-graduation,” the report accompanying the survey says. “One-third of those with student loans are shelling out over $300 per month and five percent are actually paying more than $1,000 per month.”

Although 60% of respondents to the PwC/JA survey say financial aid is a consideration in their school choice, the survey also finds that today’s high school seniors are relying on an average of just over $8,200 in contributions from their parents and more than $6,600 in student loans to help fund their first year’s tuition. Their average contribution from savings or earnings: less than $1,400. (These students also spent almost $200 of their own money, on average, on back-to-school shopping. School supplies, followed by clothes, were the most common purchases.)

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MONEY College

Why College Costs Keep Eating Up More Of Your Paycheck

141113_FF_College
Aydin Buyuktas / Alamy

Tuition is rising faster than incomes. But a new private college price war and the improved economy have meant lower prices for many students.

College became a little less affordable again for most students in 2014, as the typical school raised prices faster than financial aid—and faster than average income growth.

In its annual analysis of the state of college prices, the College Board found that most higher education charges continued to outpace the 1.5% average growth in incomes. The cost of attending the typical public university–including dorms, dining hall privileges, textbooks, and miscellaneous expenses—reached $23,410, up 2.6% from last year. Private college costs hit $46,272, up 3.4%.

Even after subtracting scholarships and grants, the average cost of a public education rose by 3.5%. The average net cost of attending a private college was up 4.1%.

A Few Bright Spots

With college costs continuing to eat up a higher percentage of most families’ incomes, “you can see why there is a lot of stress for people” says Sandy Baum, a co-author of the College Board report.

But, she added, “things are looking a little bit better” for some students. The lowest-cost option—attending a local community colleges while living at home—remained comparatively affordable. The total for tuition, fees, textbooks, and commuting to campus averaged $6,410 this year, a 3.1% increase over 2013. But since most of those students received grants or were able to take advantage of at least some of the $2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit, the net cost of attending a community college averaged $1,320.

And the College Board noted that in real terms—in other words, after adjusting for inflation—private colleges are about 4% less expensive than they were in 2008. The reason: A decline in the number of 18-year-olds has sparked a scramble to fill seats at many small and non-prestigious private colleges, says Susan Fitzgerald, who analyzes college finances for Moody’s Investors Services.

Elite colleges are in such high demand that they can charge whatever they want. But schools without national reputations, Fitzgerald says, “are facing a very competitive environment, and one of the ways they are competing is on price.” So while such colleges typically hike published tuition prices, they are also raising the amount of financial aid they offer. As a result, the net prices charged to new freshmen have remained fairly flat.

A Pause at the Publics

In 18 states, the average cost of public college tuition rose by less than the 2% inflation rate, the College Board found. For example, after many years of dramatic tuition increases, the University of California, Berkeley charged tuition and fees of $12,972 this year. While that’s an 80% increase over 2007, it’s a rise of only 1% from last year. At the other end of the country, tuition and fees at the University of Maine averaged $10,606 this year, up only $6 from 2013, and $24 from the fall of 2011.

Many public universities have been able to moderate tuition inflation because the economic rebound has increased state tax coffers. And states have used some of those gains to at least partially alleviate the severe higher education budget cuts of the past few years, Baum says.

But, she notes, on average states are providing about 20% less funding per student to public colleges than they were prior to 2007.

A recovery in state budgets has put tuition inflation on pause in many states, she says. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that tuition hyperinflation won’t return. “We will again at some point experience tighter state budgets,” Baum warns.

In fact, in an ominous sign, some college leaders are already pushing for tuition hikes in 2015. Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California system, last week requested permission to raise tuition by 5% a year for the next five years.

Public universities: Sticker price Public universities: est. average net cost (after grants and tax aid) Private colleges: Sticker price Private colleges: est. average net cost (after grants and tax aid)
2013-14 $22,826 $16,717 $44,750 $33,710
2014-15 $23,410 $17,300 $46,272 $35,082
1-year $ increase $584 $584 $1,522 $1,372
1-year % increase 2.6% 3.5% 3.4% 4.1%

Source: The College Board

More on saving for college from Money 101:

MONEY College

How to Give the Gift of College This Holiday Season

stacks of money wrapped with a gold bow
Deborah Albers—Getty Images

The kids in your family could probably use cash towards school more than a new toy (or at least parents might prefer that). Here's how to make it happen.

Saving for college can be tough, but many families do not tap a potentially generous resource: relatives and friends.

Various companies are trying to change that by making it easier for parents to ask for, and receive, contributions to college savings plans. As the holidays approach, these providers are stepping up their efforts to publicize these options and convince families to try them.

“I think people can feel comfortable going out and saying they prefer gifts that are more meaningful,” says Erin Condon, vice president of Upromise, a college savings and cash rewards program, run by Sallie Mae.

“They can say, ‘Instead of giving our son a truck, how about helping us save for college? Or giving him a smaller truck and putting $20 into his college savings plan?'”

Named after Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, 529 college savings plans allow contributors to invest money that can grow tax-free to pay for qualified higher education costs.

Although typically sponsored by states, the plans are run by investment companies and account balances can be spent at any accredited college or vocational school nationwide.

Upromise released a survey last week that found seven out of 10 parents would prefer their children received money for college rather than physical gifts. Upromise offers a way to let others do just that: it is called Ugift, a free online service that families can use to solicit their social networks for college contributions.

Friends and family are emailed bar-coded coupons they can print out and send in with a paper check. The service is available to customers of the 29 Upromise-affiliated 529 plans, which include two of the country’s largest: New York’s 529 College Savings Program and Vanguard 529 College Savings Plan in Nevada.

Upromise has found that customers who enlist others to help them save via the site’s rewards program and shopping portal typically accumulate three times as much as customers who do not, Condon says.

The 529 plans run by Fidelity Investments also offer a free service that allows parents to set up a personalized contribution page and share links via email or social media that allow direct contributions to a child’s college savings account via electronic check.

Fidelity released its own poll recently, which found 9 out of 10 grandparents surveyed said they would be likely—if asked—to contribute to a college savings fund in lieu of other gifts for a holiday, birthday or special occasion. Fidelity manages 529 plans for Arizona, Delaware, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

These programs tap into the crowd-funding zeitgeist that has seen people appealing to their social networks to help pay for creative projects, charitable causes as well as personal costs such as medical expenses, travel and weddings.

As college costs rise, more people see the need for such help, according to Joe Hurley, founder of the 529 information site SavingForCollege.com.

“It’s a reaction to material gifts, and also the rising cost of college that’s creating so much anxiety for parents,” says Hurley.

Create a College Registry

A few sites facilitate contributions to any 529 plan. GradSave, for example, lets parents set up a free college savings registry that accepts contributions from friends and family. The money is held in an FDIC-insured account until the parents transfer it to their 529 accounts.

Leaf College Savings, meanwhile, offers an education gift card that anyone can use to make a 529 contribution for someone else. The giver loads an amount between $25 and $1,000 onto the card and gives it to the parent, who can then redeem it at the Leaf site and transfer the funds to his or her 529 plan. If the parents do not have a plan, the site helps them set one up.

The gift card, however, comes with an “activation fee” of at least $2.95 plus another $2.95 to get a physical card rather than one sent by email or Facebook or printed out on your computer.

But givers do not need an intermediary to contribute to a college savings plan, says Hurley, since virtually every 529 plan accepts third-party gifts. Those who want to contribute directly to a child’s account typically will need to include the account number and perhaps the child’s Social Security number, but Hurley notes there is a way to bypass that requirement.

“Just make the check out to the 529 plan, hand it to the parents and say, ‘Here, put it into the plan,'” he says. “That’s pretty easy.”

One thing that may not be easy is figuring out who gets the tax break for the gift. Most states offer tax deductions for 529 contributions when the contributor is a parent. Some offer the break to any contributor. And some do not offer any tax break at all.

The solution? Talk to your tax professional.

Related: More on college savings plans

MONEY College

12 Things We Wish We’d Known When We Were 18

Girl moving off to college
Eric Raptosh Photography—Corbis

Suze Orman and other experts share their financial advice for the Class of 2018. Follow these tips to keep your college experience from becoming a major money mistake.

Prepping for freshman year at college typically includes activities like shopping for dorm essentials, reviewing orientation packets, and Googling your new roommate.

Most students don’t spend a lot of time thinking about how they’ll manage their money in this new phase of their lives.

And yet, what you do in those first few years of parental emancipation can affect you for years—or decades—to come. Students graduated last year with an average $35,200 in college-related debt, including federal, state and private loans, as well as debt owed to family and accumulated via credit cards, according to a Fidelity study. Half of those students said they were surprised by just how much debt they’d accumulated.

To make sure the class of 2018 gets off on the right foot, MONEY gathered sage advice from top financial experts about the lessons they wish they, their kids, or their friends had known before starting school.

1. Limit your loans. “Do not take out more in student loans than what you are projected to earn in your first year after college. If you only expect to make $40,000, you better not take out more than $40,000. The chances of you being able to pay it back is close to nil. If you need to take a private loan, you’re going to a college you can’t afford. Remember, going to an expensive school doesn’t guarantee success. The school never makes you, you make the school.” —Suze Orman, host of The Suze Orman Show and author of The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous & Broke

2. Finish in four. “Many kids are finishing school in five or six years. But every extra year is potentially an extra $30,000 to 40,000 in expenses. Map out your coursework and figure out exactly what you’ll need to do each semester. Be vigilant about sticking to your plan. Try to catch up on any credits by taking classes at a community college over the summer.” —Farnoosh Torabi, author of You’re So Money

3. Study money 101. “Sign up for an economics or personal finance course. This way, when you graduate, you’ll be better equipped to manage money for the rest of your life.” —Brittney Castro, CEO of Financially Wise Women

4. Leave the car at home. “Everyone feels like they need a car, but with the combination of sharing services like Uber, Lyft, Zipcar and public transport, that isn’t always the case. If you’re living in a major metropolitan center or on campus, consider leaving your car behind. It’s much cheaper to use one of these car services than it is to pay for insurance, gas, parking, car maintenance and car payments.” —Daniel Solin, author of The Smartest Money Book You’ll Ever Read

5. Lead rather than follow. “Especially in college, you’re going to be surrounded by people doing dumb things financially. You’ll see people financing their lifestyle with student loans or their parents’ money. Don’t feel bad if you can’t afford the same things as others. I knew a student who was financing his whole college experience with debt and he was always asking people to go shopping with him. If I’d tried to keep pace, I’d have ended up in the same debt-ridden place as him.”—Zac Bissonnette, author of Debt-Free U

6. Find free fun. “You can still do fun things at school, without spending a lot of money. You’re paying an activity fee in your tuition, so you ought to make sure you’re taking full advantage of whatever the school offers for free—be it concerts, trips, lectures. The school I went to provided grants to help students travel abroad and offered free plays and trips through different clubs.” —Farnoosh Torabi

7. Be purposeful with plastic. “The idea that you need to build credit in college is wildly overrated. It’s not a bad idea to build credit, but having built up a bad credit history will hurt you more than having no credit history. You don’t need to feel pressure to get a credit card. You can get by just fine with cash and a debit card; no one is expecting you to have a ton of borrowing history when you’re getting your first apartment anyway.” —Zac Bissonnette

8. Put your budget on autopilot. “Keep track of the money you’re getting in from loans and your parents, as well as your expenses. Use an app like Mint.com, which lets you link your debit and credit cards to your online account to track your spending and easily help you keep on budget.” —Daniel Solin

9. Enlist Mom and Dad. “Check in with your parents once a month and review your spending with them. Talking about this will help you to avoid what I call ‘budget creep,’ where all of a sudden you’re spending $30 a day on food and entertainment. All those little extras add up and you could be spending over a hundred a week… on what?”—Neale Godfrey, chairwoman of Children’s Financial Inc.

10. Protect your stuff. “College students may not think they have a lot of valuable possessions. But think about the value of electronic devices alone, not to mention textbooks, clothes, even that ratty futon. The good news is that renters insurance is typically inexpensive and can protect you from fires, theft and other incidents. The even better news is that students’ stuff may be covered by their parents’ homeowners insurance. Check the policy prior to hitting the books.”—Kara McGuire, author of The Teen Money Manual

11. Establish rules with roomies. “If you’re renting an apartment with friends, be sure everyone and their parents sign the lease. Try to have everyone’s name on the utilities bills as well. Kids will take advantage of other kids, and you don’t want to be the one who is stuck being responsible for everything. If you can’t attach everyone’s names to all the bills, have them prepay. Also, make sure everyone chips in for general expenses like cleaning supplies and toilet paper, so you don’t end up paying for all of that as well.” —Neale Godfrey

12. Share with discretion. “Social networks are a public record. Your future employers will look you up on your social sites and judge you based on what they see. So something that you thought was cute in college could keep you from getting the job. Know that every move you make on those sites could have a direct consequence on your ability to land a job.” —Suze Orman

 

MONEY College

Two New Proposals Would Make College Free Nationwide

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Michael Burrell / Alamy

With student loan debt crippling students, education advocates are suggesting ways to change how federal financial aid money is distributed.

Adele Williams often hears her friends from high school talking about their struggles to afford college.

But she can’t relate—she doesn’t pay any tuition at all. At the school she attends, Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky, students attend for free in exchange for working.

Her friends at other schools, she says, “are mostly jealous.”

At a time when the cost of attending many private colleges exceeds the national median household income, the idea of paying no tuition at all seems so unrealistic that one higher-education economist refers to it as “la-la land.” But there are a handful of schools—such as Alice Lloyd and others—that don’t charge students a penny. Meanwhile, Tennessee will make all of its community colleges free for state residents beginning next year, and Oregon is moving forward with a study considering the same thing.

Now two new proposals go even farther, both aiming to make no-cost college a nationwide standard. A report from the Lumina Foundation recommends that the first two years of public universities and colleges be free, and a new nonprofit called Redeeming America’s Promise has come out with a proposal to give every lower- and middle-class student a full ride.

“The rising millennial generation has been so deeply affected by student debt that they’re driving a conversation about this challenge,” says Morley Winograd, the president of Redeeming America’s Promise, who worked as an advisor to Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton Administration. She added that “well-meaning but what I would call Band-Aid solutions” aren’t enough to fix the problem.

Existing financial aid was created to help the lowest-income students at a time when middle-class and wealthier families had little trouble paying for college on their own, notes University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist and higher-education policy expert Sara Goldrick-Rab, who co-authored the other proposal. “But the people who are struggling to pay for college today go way beyond poor people,” she says. “There’s a need for a universal program.”

The Full Ride Proposal

Redeeming America’s Promise proposes redirecting existing federal and state financial aid and tuition tax breaks to give full tuition scholarships in specified amounts. It says the amount of money the government already spends for those purposes is enough to provide $2,500 per academic year for community college and $8,500 for four-year universities to every student from a family earning $180,000 a year or less.

That would just about cover the entire average advertised full cost of public college and university tuitions for everyone, the organization says.

Under the plan, which is backed by several Republican and Democratic former governors, Cabinet members, and members of Congress, the students could take out loans to cover their living expenses and repay them based on their incomes after graduation.

The scholarships would be limited to two years for an associate’s degree and four years for a bachelor’s degree to encourage students to graduate on time—which only a fifth of those at four-year institutions currently do and 4% at two-year schools.

Colleges and universities generally wouldn’t be allowed to raise their prices higher than the scholarship amounts, forcing them to control their costs.

The 50% Plan

Goldrick-Rab and her colleague, Nancy Kendall urge in their report that the billions of dollars in federal financial aid money and some state money be redirected to make tuition, fees, books, and supplies free for the first two years of any two- or four-year public university or college and that students be given stipends and jobs to help them pay their living expenses.

Goldrick-Rab and Kendall call this the free two-year college option, or F2CO.

The Reality Check

The Redeeming America’s Promise scholarships would cover the full cost of tuition at public universities and colleges not private ones, the influential lobbies of which are likely to oppose the idea on the grounds that it would divert students from them.

But public institutions might oppose as well, on the basis that the plan would be a form of price control or that they wouldn’t be able to handle, at the amount they are allowed to charge, the flood of students projected to descend on them. Tennessee universities opposed making community colleges free in that state, for example, until lawmakers agreed to make some changes in funding for them.

“We had four-year schools that were going, ‘Wow, it’s going to be hard for us to compete with free,’” said Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.

And the sweeping, dramatic changes suggested in either proposal would face an uphill battle in a divided government that has been challenged to make even marginal policy decisions.

“It’s very difficult to separate the politics from the economics,” said David Breneman, a professor in the economics of education at the University of Virginia.

Breneman pronounced both free-college proposals “not realistic,” especially at four-year institutions (“That’s just La-La Land”), though he said they might stir up a helpful conversation about untangling the way the government helps students pay for college.

“When you look at what a mess we’ve made of student aid and how complicated it’s gotten and the loan craziness, it’s not surprising that people look back at those days when we just had low tuition,” he said.

Even the free-college crusaders are not optimistic about these plans being adopted in the immediate future.

“No way is it happening today,” said Goldrick Rab. “To me the question is, will enough groundwork be laid today that it becomes something groups are working on for the next 10 to 12 years, and that eventually becomes a litmus test for people we elect.”

Winograd said more states could make public colleges and universities free sooner than that, mostly without federal involvement. Advocates in some already have proposed it, and many states are watching the free-college experiment in Tennessee, where the $34 million-a-year cost is to be underwritten by a $300 million endowment paid for from lottery proceeds. (In Oregon, the annual cost is estimated at $100 million to $200 million.)

“The political will to do it does exist, not necessarily in Washington, but throughout the country,” Winograd said.

__________

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Related stories:

Colleges try to speed up pace at which students earn degrees

Testing your way to a degree

Residents are crowded out of college by out-of-state and foreign students

Just as it wants students to speed up, government won’t pay for summer courses

MONEY college costs

Starbucks Steps In to Pay for College — Because the States Are Stepping Out

Are programs like this a serious answer to college affordability?

Today Starbucks and Arizona State University announced that the coffee shop chain will help its baristas pay for online courses at ASU. It looks like an attractive deal for Starbucks employees in a position to take advantage of it. The company will cover the cost, after other aid, for junior- and senior-year courses of anyone working 20 hours per week. Getting to junior year will be a bit trickier: For freshmen and sophomores, students will be eligible for smaller scholarships to help cover ASU’s online tuition. Many Starbucks employees are likely eligible for Federal Pell grants to help cover the rest.

It’s worth stepping back, though, to look at the big picture of college funding in the United States. Especially in the years since the financial crisis, public universities are relying less and less on state funding, and more on student tuition. In other words, they are becoming less public.

image(24)
SOURCE: State Higher Education Executive Officer Association

Although there’s plenty of debate about whether colleges are doing enough to control costs—especially on administrative salaries—much of this shift seem to be driven by a drop of in per-student aid from states.

ASU has kept in-state tuition lower than many other public schools around the country. The Arizona Republic reports that the online program is part of how they’ve done that: Online courses make money for the school. That’s because the courses are comparatively cheap to run, while tuition (both in-state and out-of-state) is about the same as what traditional resident students pay.

So are programs like Starbucks’ an answer to college affordability? It may work for some, but there’s evidence that online programs are a poor fit for many students, as Kim Clark reported in MONEY in 2013:

Researchers at Columbia University have found that community college online students got lower grades and dropped out more often than those in regular classes.

“If we know community college students don’t do as well in online education, does it really make sense to be funneling [more] students into online classes?” asks Shanna Smith Jaggars, one of the Columbia researchers.

Jaggars says younger and struggling students are the least suited to online classes; they need the structure and time-management discipline of a classroom.

By targeting its most generous funding on juniors and seniors, the program is betting on students who already have a college track record and thus a better chance of succeeding online. It will be a big test of the much-hyped online model to see how many Starbucks employees actually graduate with an ASU degree.

This story has been corrected to reflect new information about details of the the Starbucks/ASU plan.

MONEY College

How to Tell Your Kid You Can’t Afford Her Dream College

You meant it when you said, "Study hard in high school, and we'll send you to the best college you get into." But now you're looking at the cost of Dream U -- and panicking.

Sticker prices at the top private colleges exceed $60,000. Even with scholarships, typical middle-class families face bills totaling $24,500 a year at private colleges, and $16,500 at public ones, the Department of Education reports.

Think you’ll have to tell your kid that her top prospect isn’t a possibility? Better to do it sooner than later. “Ideally, parents would have the affordability conversation when the child is starting high school so he or she can be realistic,” says Mark Montgomery, a college-admissions adviser in Denver.

The Ground Rules

Get the facts. Prepare a summary of your family’s financial situation along with the amount you can afford to contribute to college expenses vs. the net prices provided by the colleges’ aid letters or their net price calculators, says Deborah Fox, a college-funding adviser in San Diego.

Be the grownup. Don’t let your kid’s anger and disappointment cause you to do something you’ll regret, like fighting back or taking loans you can’t afford. “Hold your line,” says Mashpee, Mass., social worker Beth Wechsler.

When You’re Face to Face

1. Show, don’t tell: “Honey, we are so proud of you. But you’ve heard how the prices of some colleges have gone crazy. Let’s look at our family finances to see whether your top picks are in our reach.”

Why this works: “Saying no without explanation may cause kids to shut down,” says Nathan Dungan, a Minneapolis family wealth consultant and founder of ShareSaveSpend.com. Instead, treat your child as the adult he or she is becoming: Explain what you can afford, what the school will cost, and the impact of any gap.

Related: How to ace your annual review

2. Apologize: “We’re sorry. We should have looked at the numbers before promising that you could go to any school you wanted.”

Why this works: Some children will become upset at parents who change the terms of a commitment, says psychologist Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids.

You won’t be able to move the conversation forward until you acknowledge the mistake, she adds. Apologize without getting defensive about past spending. “Don’t say, ‘But the old car was breaking down.’ Say, ‘I know how you had your heart set on going there. I understand why you’re so upset,'” Markham advises.

3. Allow for grief: “Let’s take a break and reconvene later.”

Why this works: A child who is fixated on a particular college “will go through all the grieving stages, including denial, rage, and acceptance” when that dream dies, Markham says. To have a productive conversation, wait until the emotions on both sides calm down.

Related: Baby on the way? Time to make a budget

4. Ask open-ended questions: “What about this school made it so attractive to you?”

Why this works: By pinning down what the student is seeking, families can focus on lower-cost alternatives that still match the student’s dreams, says Wechsler.

5. Make a game plan: “Let’s figure out what our options are.”

Why this works: “You’re getting the family working together as a team” while nudging the child to take responsibility for charting his own future, says Montgomery. Offer help with options that won’t harm the family’s finances, such as applying for more aid, starting out at a lower-cost school, or deferring for a year to allow Junior to work and save.

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