Of all the discussions about the cost and price of college, the most important often happen far from the seats of power in Congress and university boardrooms.

At kitchen tables and in living rooms across the country, students and families look at what they must pay and decide what they can afford. Many are skeptical about the return on their educational dollars, and some are applying the tools of investing to see what their college payoff will be.

This is about more than tuition. Housing, books, food, and other living expenses are also part of learners’ financial reality.

The students and families facing this reality need good information—starting with the full cost of college, not just the sticker prices listed by schools. Many find the Hechinger Report’s Tuition Tracker helpful in showing the real cost after grants, scholarships and other financial aid are included.

A comparison between cost and earnings yields one measure of return on investment. There are other ways to measure ROI, of course, like post-graduation employment and overall life happiness. But using a simple calculation, such as the one offered by advisors like Savant Wealth Management, gives consumers an easy way of thinking about the cost of college like an investor. Using this method, they say, a student or family can get a rough sense of their educational ROI:

“Subtract the average salary for someone with a high school diploma from the salary expected with a college degree, and multiply that by the number of years in the workforce after graduation. Divide that number by the sum of tuition, fees, books, and loan interest, and then multiply that by 100.”

That’s a lot of math when comparing several schools, so an even faster roundup of ROI is available from the Center for Education and the Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University. Using data from the College Scorecard, CEW ranked 4,500 colleges and universities by return on investment, using the net present value of money and other metrics.

Whether they’re aware of these ROI tools or not, students and families are especially price sensitive as college costs have grown. In fact, according to a recent survey of 24,000 high school seniors, 89 percent said a school’s published price affects their likelihood to even inquire about applying. Of those who did consider price, only 41 percent would consider applying to a college whose total price is over $40,000 per year.

The survey conducted last fall by Niche, a Pittsburgh-based platform that helps students compare colleges, also showed that 97 percent of respondents had fears about finding the right school—especially about not being able to afford the place they want and making the wrong decision.

My colleague Michelle Cooper, Lumina Foundation’s vice president for public policy, stresses the importance of eliminating barriers that keep students from enrolling in the first place. As one of the nation’s leading experts on college affordability, she urges a number of corrective steps: increasing financial aid, making it easier to transfer from two-year schools, breaking down bureaucratic barriers, offering clear pathways to careers, and more funding for childcare, food banks, mental health, and other supports.

“I am mentoring a young man who told me he made his college choice based solely on what he believed the cost to be,” Michelle said.

“He had $9,000, and that was it. What I knew—and what he did not know—was that there were several choices for him in that price range if he could access merit- and need-based aid. But he didn’t know how to navigate a complex university system to get there.”

It’s striking to me how often the theme shows up: Students need research and guidance in making the best decisions—and the schools themselves must redesign their systems to become more transparent, affordable, and equitable.

We’re seeing progress. States are expanding access to dual-enrollment courses—allowing students to earn college credit for free, while still in high school. They’re improving transfer agreements and making it simpler for students to receive credit for prior learning. In Tennessee, the Higher Education Commission adopted a strategic finance plan with the goal of being the most affordable state for higher education in the South.

The plan defines affordability as a measure of net price (sticker price tuition minus financial aid) relative to average family income. It identified tuition policy and other solutions to help achieve the state affordability goal.

So it’s not enough to say that college is “too expensive.” We know that students need more and better information about their college options, especially about pricing and the ROI of those degrees. And the entire system must be easier to navigate—especially for older students, including the 40 million Americans who have some college but no degree.

Yes, college graduates earn an average 68 percent more than people without a degree. But for many Americans who are considering their options, the details matter. That’s why students and families should consider themselves as investors—using ROI and other measurements to find the best pathways when charting their futures.

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