The U.S. Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center provides a user-friendly and comprehensive look at college costs, but the data are limited and could be misinterpreted without the proper context. To ensure the information is useful and not misinterpreted, users should be aware of the following.
The center highlights cost, but doesn't necessarily provide consumers with any context to assess the value of an institution. For example, an institution may cost more because it provides a higher teacher to student ratio or access to expensive, cutting-edge equipment. It is important for students and parents to keep in mind that data in the center are only one factor to consider when judging if an institution is a good value.
The center's net price figures only use first-time, full-time freshmen who receive grant aid. This is a small fraction of the school's student population so the figures may not be useful for transfer students, part-time students, or those who are not eligible for grant aid. In addition, schools that provide more grant aid to freshmen or use a large percentage of grant aid for a small percentage of students will appear to have a low net price even if most students pay more.
It costs more to run an institution in New York City than a less expensive area of the country so comparing schools in expensive parts of the country to less-expensive areas can be like comparing apples to oranges.
This is a new program and bugs are still being worked out. Several schools have already complained that their data are inaccurate or not consistent with data submitted by other institutions. For example, some institutions say they listed room and board as part of tuition and fees while others may list tuition separately. This inconsistency can make it difficult to compare actual costs between institutions.
The center pulls data from different years for published tuition and fees and net-price because published tuition and fees data are available before the student aid data needed to develop net-price figure. Because the data are from previous academic years, recent changes to tuition and fees and financial aid are not necessarily reflected.