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Signs at a college reading, Financial Aid and Admissions

Why finding out how much a college costs is harder than it looks

Want to find out how much it will cost to go to Arkansas Northeastern College? The federal government has a website that promises you can “Calculate your personal net price.” But clicking on that link brings you to the college’s own home page with a fun photo of its cuddly mascot and no immediate sign of anything about cost.

Howard University? The link from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard takes you to a primer about how financial aid works. For the University of St Francis in Illinois, it lands on “page can’t be found.”

The Trump administration is pushing to make college costs, outcomes and other information more accessible, as an alternative to regulating institutions with high costs and poor results. But though advocates applaud this transparency — while also largely decrying the rollback of regulation — researchers are discovering that some of the data being made available through or linked from the College Scorecard, the principal federal higher education consumer website, is inaccessible, inaccurate or out of date. Much is provided directly by colleges and universities themselves, with few checks on whether it’s correct — at a time when some schools admit to having falsified information or reported it in misleading ways.

“The information we need to provide has to be accurate, has to be verifiable, has to be comparable. It has to be visible to students, and it has to be usable,” said Debbie Cochrane, executive vice president of the Institute for College Access & Success. “Misleading information is not helpful. Perfectly valid information that can’t be found is also not helpful.”

The Trump administration has taken away a feature that enabled users to measure particular colleges against national averages of such things as price and postgraduate earnings, saying that it wasn’t fair to compare institutions serving different types of students. And the Scorecard won’t tell you the proportion of graduates who get jobs or default on their student loans or earn two-year degrees in two years or four-year degrees in four.

“Giving people good data is a good first step that’s going to allow them to make better-informed choices,” said Kaitlyn Vitez, higher education campaign director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “But people are still going to go to institutions that aren’t the best fit for them because there’s no voice from the Department of Education telling them how to interpret these data.”

Some College Scorecard measures have been newly calculated using official independent sources in what advocates say is a big improvement. For example, postgraduate earnings are now being gleaned from tax records, and graduates’ average debt, by program, from the government’s National Student Loan Data System. The idea is to help students see if they’ll make enough money to repay what they borrow to study a particular subject.

But much of the remaining data comes from the universities and colleges themselves, a fact that may not be evident to consumers who use the Scorecard; to find out, they’d have to click on a link at the bottom of the page, and then open and read the highly technical “Documentation Report.”

READ MORE: Placement rates, other data colleges provide consumers are often alternative facts

There they’d find that measures such as the ACT and SAT scores of entering students, graduation rates and — critically, according to experts — costs of attendance are supplied by the institutions directly. The accuracy of these numbers is not verified by the Department of Education except when they stand out dramatically from what’s reported by comparable schools, or change noticeably from one year to the next, an agency statistician said.

Some observers complain that’s not enough. Rather than taking the seller’s word for it, such important consumer information should go through external audits like the ones required of publicly traded companies, said Michael Horn, senior partner of the education consulting firm Entangled Solutions and co-author of the new book, “Choosing College.”

“There’s got to be a check on it,” Horn said. “It can’t just be, ‘We pulled this together for you — trust us.’”

Colleges and universities haven’t done themselves a lot of favors in the trust department lately, Horn and others point out. Over the last two years, at least eight schools have given false information to U.S. News for its annual rankings — the latest in a litany of misreporting.

The University of Oklahoma, for example, admitted to inflating figures about alumni giving for 20 years, and its board of regents will now be required to confirm and certify that information it submits is true — something the interim president, Joseph Harroz Jr., said in a statement “represents a best practice that all universities should consider when reporting institutional data” to outside organizations that collect it.

Institutions also have a mixed record when it comes to the truthfulness of data they provide directly to prospective students. Offers of financial aid, for example, are notoriously confusing. The think tank New America and the student advocacy organization uAspire found that colleges they studied used 136 different terms for “unsubsidized student loan” — in two dozen cases, without actually including the word “loan.” Only 40 percent of the schools told students what they’d actually have to pay.

Placement rates for graduates are often based on email surveys of alumni, many of whom do not respond, though colleges and universities don’t always make that clear. Four-year colleges and universities that shared their placement rates with the National Association of Colleges and Employers, for example, said that 80 percent of their 2017 alumni were working or pursuing further education, but a closer look shows this accounts for only a little more than half of former students; the whereabouts of the rest were not known.

“If you’re lying about that, it makes me wonder about the other things you’re telling me about the institution,” said Ben Miller, vice president for postsecondary education at the progressive policy institute the Center for American Progress.

There aren’t independently corroborated placement rates on the College Scorecard. Nor does it include the proportion of students who graduate on time — it shows only the proportion who finish two-year schools within three years and four-year schools within six years — though the Department of Education’s own focus groups found that job placement and on-time graduation were two of the top three considerations for families and students, along with earnings.

In the best of circumstances, the Scorecard is up against a deeply ingrained system that makes it hard to find out how much a higher education will cost, and what a student can expect as a return on his or her investment.

“You shouldn’t need an advanced degree in higher education policy to understand the basics of what’s best for you,” said Vitez.

A 2016 study found that the Scorecard at that time had little effect on students’ college choices; where there was a measurable impact, it was among students of means at high schools with knowledgeable college counselors who could help them interpret the information.

The Department of Education did not respond to repeated requests to discuss the reliability of Scorecard data or the number of people who use the website, though Google data show that searches for it have been generally flat after a brief spike when it was relaunched during the Obama administration in September 2015.

One thing all families presumably want to know, most experts said, is how much college will cost them. And a preponderance of research suggests that’s harder than it looks.

The Scorecard lists the average net price at every university or college for families in each of five income brackets. These prices, too, are supplied by the institutions, and are supposed to include room, board and other expenses, such as books and transportation. But colleges make these estimates themselves, and one study found that nearly half over- or understated the cost of living by at least 20 percent. Sometimes the colleges appeared to be trying to make themselves look cheaper, another study said, suggesting that these figures “may deserve additional scrutiny.”

If those cost averages are too vague, families can click on the Scorecard’s “Calculate your personal net price” tool. That takes them to the colleges’ websites, which are required by law to include a “net price calculator” into which prospective students can enter their family income and other characteristics to get a better idea of their costs.

In a random sample, several of those links went nowhere. Two-thirds of the net price calculators to which the Scorecard did connect showed prices that were out of date or didn’t say what year they were from, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education found. One-third didn’t prominently display the correct net price. Some left out living expenses. A few asked for a user’s personal information without making clear that providing it was optional. Some of the calculators didn’t work.

No fewer than three bipartisan bills in Congress propose to improve the quality of information available about colleges to students and their families.

The College Transparency Act would remove a ban on federal agencies tracking individual students through college, allowing much more accurate cost and graduation and placement data to be collected, anonymously and independent of colleges. The Net Price Calculator Improvement Act would require the government to create a central calculator on which students could compare their likely prices at several colleges at once. And the Understanding the True Cost of College Act, backed by more than 40 organizations representing students, veterans, consumer advocates and others, would make financial aid offers more clear and consistent.

Some entrepreneurs aren’t waiting. Two startups, Edmit and TuitionFit, use actual prices paid by students and their families, along with information from college counselors, consultants and other sources, to calculate the likely cost of college for new applicants.

It’s simple, said Mark Salisbury, a former researcher and admissions recruiter and cofounder of TuitionFit, to which students can upload their financial aid offer letters to unmask the once-secret process of what colleges are actually charging: “What the public wants to know is, if I’ve got $10,000 to spend on college per year, which colleges should I look at?”

One savvy client who did all her homework used an institution’s net price calculator to come up with what she thought she’d pay, said Edmit cofounder Sabrina Manville. When she got her bill, she found the answer that she’d gotten had been off by $10,000. “And the college just said, ‘Oh, that stuff’s out of date.’ ”

It shouldn’t be this hard, Salisbury said.

“The federal government’s definition of transparency,” he said, “is not the general public’s conception of transparency.”

This story about the cost of college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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