Here’s a personal finance pop quiz with an extremely high pass rate.
In what industry do so many customers not know the price until after they request the privilege of making the purchase in the first place?
The answer, of course, is higher education. This business of selling and buying undergraduate education is complicated, and college buyers are increasingly looking for pricing predictability and granular data to gauge the offers students are receiving.
When they can’t find satisfactory decision-making tools, parents are inventing solutions themselves. Drawing on data from crooked government databases and obscure jargon-laden school disclosures, they organize the information into spreadsheets or tools that they make available online.
The data may not predict the exact price of attending a given college, and typically a single number will not drive such an important decision. But it can encourage a rethinking of the buying process and an appropriate level of skepticism.
“Ideally, data prompts people to ask the right questions,” said Leigh Moore, a former dentist and math teacher, mother of three, and founder of Moore College Data.
Here are four resources worth checking out if you’re still making up your mind, or preparing to in the coming years.
PRICE: $50 to $125.
PAIN POINT: Any list of colleges someone applies to is partly the answer to two questions: Can I get in and can I afford it?
When George Fan, a veteran of the technology industry, and his family first approached the process, they knew what they didn’t. And their data-driven brain couldn’t resist building spreadsheets to track the knowledge they were accumulating.
The end result was College Kickstart, now a small business that Mr. Fan describes as a passion project run amok.
Perhaps its smartest feature is the letter grade it assigns to the list of schools you’re considering. Using recent admissions data and his own grades and test scores, he assigns labels to schools, such as “reach” or “likely.” Most students, and parents who found it easier to get into college when it was less competitive, overestimate their chances. College Kickstart encourages you to adjust your mix if there are too many remote colleges on the initial list.
Mr. Fan then offers facts and commentary on need-based aid and so-called merit aid, which is a discount off list price that even the wealthy can get. That saves parents from having to study the subject for data from many websites.
“Half the battle is just trying to figure out what data is useful instead of feeling like you need to pore over it,” he said. “And that’s why you’re seeing a cottage industry of frustrated parents hurting to take action.”
THERE SHOULD BE A LAW: Most data mongers have a wish list of things they would require universities to disclose if they were in charge. Mr. Fan would like to see all universities publish their new common data set, a rich collection of information on prices and other things, by December of each year.
“I know they are never going to share the admission fee of an Asian male in California applying for STEM,” he said. “But all the families are just looking for some transparency in the process. ‘Am I competitive? I can afford? It would be a real help.
PAIN POINT: Ms. Vallab’s household income is high enough that her children do not qualify for need-based aid. But the earnings are also not high enough to comfortably pay full price for all of them, especially at private universities.
“Universities tell you, ‘Don’t worry, most people don’t pay sticker price,’” he said. “But nobody tells you what price they really pay.”
All universities are required to offer the so-called net price calculators on their websites. When they are accurate sometimes they are not, if universities don’t use good colleges or don’t maintain them well, they can give families a rough idea of how much need-based aid they might receive. However, schools are not required to estimate how much merit aid you might receive.
So Ms. Vallab created a tool to do that. It starts with various averages that colleges post on a little-known government website, and then uses an algorithm to evaluate a list of potential schools and suggest others that might offer more discounts.
THERE SHOULD BE A LAW: One problem with net price calculators is that you have to fill them in one at a time, often with the same data. Ms. Vallab believes that there should be one universal that would yield estimates for any school.
Moore University dataCreated by Leigh N. Moore, a mother of three in Prospect, Kentucky.
PAIN POINT: Ms. Moore has worked as a dentist and a math teacher and has provided college guidance over the years. But the need for families to get the right data at the right time was realized when one of her sons was at her college orientation before classes started.
Ms. Moore was aware of a figure showing a low four-year graduation rate for men at her college. A fifth year would mean lots of debt. So she went to the registrar’s office looking for an ironclad plan to graduate on time.
“It came out white as a ghost,” Moore said. “They had told him they didn’t think there was any way he was going to get out in four years.”
The couple eventually pulled the plug, and another school was still willing to offer him the same discount he had refused a few months earlier. Thus a business was born, trying to gather things as diverse as graduation rates and campus crime statistics, and deliver them to families.
“Good data should drive good conversations,” he said.
THERE SHOULD BE A LAW: Ms. Moore wants so-called award letters that purport to explain an accepted student’s financial aid package to include a net price, or the bottom line that families will be responsible for after subtracting grants from the list price, but before to choose to take any loan. Believe it or not, many universities not presenting that number clearly – or not at all.
PAIN POINT: “People have different approaches to dealing with anxiety,” Dr. O’Meara told me by email. “Mine is to collect lots and lots of data.”
As a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, he’s used to making sense of reams of data, and the numbers he’s collected on the university are voluminous, including plenty of data on pricing and financial aid.
They are also a window into the needs of your own family. Your kids care more if they live in a desert or a forest than if the sports teams are good, so you include information about the weather and the biome. Her daughter likes to see mountains around her, so she wonders how mountains might show up in data that she will add to her collection in the future.
Social and health issues are also on her agenda, such as the availability of abortion and the risk of anti-transgender legislation.
THERE SHOULD BE A LAW: Dr. O’Meara wishes there was more information about misbehavior of all kinds in schools.
He also wants there to be a better understanding of student and alumni satisfaction. For him, the average debt and salary are not enough.
“Someone could have a happy and fulfilling life that makes a difference as a social worker or an artist if they are paid decently, even if they still make much less money than an investment banker,” he said. “If all goes well, the university should launch someone into the life they want.”