2. Compare data about length of time to graduation
Parents are often surprised to learn that only 39 percent of college graduates complete their degree within four years. The best way to end up with an enormous, unplanned tuition bill is to increase it by 20, 30, or 40 percent because your student took more than four years to graduate.
Let's say you're considering sending your child to either College A, a large state school that has what you feel is reasonable tuition prices, or College B, a smaller private school with tuition that is $12,000 higher per year. On first glance, it seems easy to understand which would be a better bargain.
But let's look deeper. After using the college website calculator to find the estimated net tuition for each school, you're surprised to find that College B is estimated to cost just $3,000 more per year than College A, given your circumstances.
Next, you look at average length of time to completion. Only 42 percent of students at College A complete within four years, while 81 percent of students at College B are done in that time.
While it may be difficult to tease out the reasons for this difference, common causes include lack of available seats in required courses, a lack of adequate advising resources to guide students in course selection, or even a campus culture that provides less structure and guidance than students need to stay on track.
You add the average completion time to your college cost spreadsheet and realize that one additional year of school at College A would wipe out any savings you'd have gained from sending your child there; further, your child would forgo earning income from a full-time job that year.