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Consumer Watch: New online tool adds up benefits, compares schools

Apr. 26, 2012 - 04:52PM   |   Last Updated: Apr. 26, 2012 - 04:52PM  |  
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Unless you're independently wealthy, the cost of college — and the amount of debt you rack up as a result — should be a big part of choosing a school.

Whether you're poring over all those acceptance letters or thinking about where to apply within the next few years, take a look at a new government online "Financial Aid Comparison Shopper" tool.

Developed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, this tool — online at http://www.consumerfinance.gov/payingforcollege">www.consumerfinance.gov/payingforcollege — helps you compare costs of schools and gives you information on the long-term effect of education loans.

Better yet, the tool includes a "Military Benefit Calculator" that lets you automatically factor tuition assistance and GI Bill benefits into the mix.

You'll get an estimate of how much you might expect to borrow to go to a particular school and how much you'd have to fork over after graduation to pay off the loan.

The comparison tool was developed by the bureau as part of its "Know Before You Owe" campaign to help families understand the total cost of post-secondary education — and how they can pay for it.

"Student loan debt has crossed the $1 trillion mark and tuition costs continue to climb," said CFPB Director Richard Cordray. "Now more than ever, students and their families need to know before they owe."

More than 7,500 schools and institutions are in the database, including vocational schools and community, state and private colleges. The information is drawn from public data provided by government statistical agencies, according to the CFPB.

You can make general comparisons among schools and stack that data against the national average for public or private schools. Available information includes:

• Estimated monthly student loan payments after graduation.

• Grant and scholarship offers.

• School-specific indicators such as graduation and retention rates, and federal student loan default rates.

• Estimated debt level at graduation compared with a graduate's average starting salary.

The tool pulls up information on each school's sticker price for the first year, the average amount of grants and scholarships offered, and an estimate of how much you'll pay each month for 10 years to pay off your loans. (To see all those calculations, click the "Enter Financial Aid" button.)

You can enter any financial aid offers into the worksheet to see your upfront costs and long-term debt changes. If you qualify for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, tuition and fee payments to schools are reduced by the amount of aid you receive.

Once you land on a school's comparison, click on "Military Benefit Calculator" at the right and answer a few questions about whether you are on active duty or a veteran, and how many months you have served since Sept. 11, 2001. You can have your military benefits — tuition assistance and/or GI Bill benefits — automatically applied to the calculations.

The tuition assistance, GI Bill benefits for tuition and fees, book allowance, and living stipend are then figured into those calculations.

You may not have a "zero" balance with the benefits calculated because the financial calculator includes the college's estimates for costs of books, room and board, and an estimate of personal expenses. These expense estimates could vary widely depending on how many books you're required to buy for your courses, and how many snacks and drinks you consume.

A check of a couple of university websites indicates that the bureau's comparison tool hasn't been updated to reflect next year's tuition, fees, and room and board for all schools. If you want to get closer to the target, check your school's website and plug the new numbers into your personal worksheet on the comparison tool.

Even if you or your child are not planning to go to school in the near future, this tool could come in handy for planning, since tuition costs will inevitably continue to increase. It might help you or your family member in your career decisions and could spur you to seek help from education counselors on base, at http://www.militaryonesource.mil/MOS/f?p=MOS:HOME:0::::">MilitaryOneSource.com or through the Veterans Affairs Department.

Another resource is the benefits calculator at http://www.newgibill.org">www.newgibill.org, developed by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Its calculations are designed to tell you how much your GI Bill benefits will be for a particular school.

In contrast, the consumerfinance.gov tool factors in a number of costs for that particular school to come up with an estimated net cost to the student — with or without GI Bill benefits.

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