New price calculating tools make college costs a little less of a mystery.  

By Jessie Van Amburg

No matter if you're leafing through those glossy admissions brochures, attending an information session on campus or browsing a college fair with your teen, there's always one big thought at the back of the mind of every parent: Wait, how much is this college degree going to cost me?

Thankfully, there are some new tools out there to make figuring out costs a little easier. This September the Department of Education released its College Scorecard, a project designed to help parents and students make more informed decisions about higher education. The tool provides information on college costs, graduation rates, average starting salaries post-graduation and information that can help people pick the best school for their financial and academic needs.

With the College Scorecard, you see a breakdown of what you'd actually pay for a college education, based on your family's income. This is the most important aspect of this tool, because while the "sticker price" of a school may be high, you most likely won't pay full price to go there. For example, although Harvard's list price is around $60,000 according to its admissions website, the average family will pay just over $14,000 per year once you factor in grants and financial aid.

The tool lets you compare schools' stats side by side, including their financial information. In the search function, you can filter out what kind of degree you want (two-year or four-year), location, public or private, size, major or program and more to make a really specific comparison. If any schools catch your eye, you can click on "View More Details" for a comprehensive summary (SAT/ACT scores to get in, what typical student debt is like, etc). You can also search for a specific school to get all the stats you want on it.

You can also check out NPR's college cost calculator, which uses the College Scorecard raw data of 150 major colleges and universities to show you right off the bat the net price (price of college minus financial aid, grants and scholarships) for various incomes compared to that scary sticker price. It's a quick but less detailed summary looking specifically at costs.

While these tools can't determine the exact dollar amount you'll have to pay, they do give you a better ballpark estimate of what college costs you are expected to be able to pay. Knowing that now will help you decide what school makes the best financial sense for your family.

Photo credit: Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.