The College Data You Probably Can’t Find, but Definitely Need

Here’s a personal finance pop quiz with an extremely high pass rate.

In what industry do so many customers not know the price until after they apply for the privilege of making the purchase in the first place?

The answer, of course, is higher education. This business of selling and buying undergraduate educations is a tricky one, and college shoppers are increasingly seeking more price predictability and granular data to assess the offers students get.

When they can’t find satisfying decision-making tools, parents are cobbling solutions together themselves. Drawing from data in wonky government databases and obscure school disclosures laden with jargon, they organize the information in spreadsheets or tools that they make available online.

Data may not predict the exact price of attending a certain college, and a single number usually won’t drive such a big decision. But it can encourage a reframing of the shopping process and a proper level of skepticism.

“Ideally, data prompts people to ask the right questions,” said Leigh Moore, a former dentist and math teacher, a mother of three and the founder of Moore College Data.

Here are four resources that are worth a look if you’re still making a decision — or getting ready to in future years.

College Kickstart, created by George Fan, father of two in Pleasanton, Calif.

PRICE: $50 to $125.

PAIN POINT: Any list of colleges that someone applies to is in part the answer to two questions: Can I get in and can I afford it?

When George Fan, a veteran in the tech industry, and his family approached the process for the first time, they knew what they didn’t know. And his data-driven brain couldn’t resist building spreadsheets to track the knowledge they were accumulating.

The eventual result was College Kickstart, now a small company that Mr. Fan describes as a passion project run amok.

Perhaps its most clever feature is the letter grade it assigns to the list of schools you’re considering. Using recent admissions data and your own grades and test scores, it gently assigns labels to schools, like “reach” or “likely.” Most students — and parents who had an easier time getting into college back when it was less competitive — overestimate their chances. College Kickstart encourages them to adjust their mix if too many long-shot colleges are on the initial list.

Then Mr. Fan serves up data and commentary on both need-based aid and so-called merit aid, which is a discount off the list price that even the affluent can get. That keeps parents from having to study up on the topic in order to pull data from many websites.

“Half the battle is just trying to discern what data is useful as opposed to feeling like you need to pore through all of it,” he said. “And that’s why you’re seeing a cottage industry of frustrated parents who feel pain taking action.”

THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW: Most datamongers have a wish list of things that they’d require colleges to reveal if they were in charge. Mr. Fan would like all colleges to release their newest so-called Common Data Set — a rich collection of information on pricing and other things — by December each year.

“I know they’re never going to share the admission rate for a male Asian in California applying in STEM,” he said. “But all families are simply looking for some transparency in the process. ‘Am I competitive? Can I afford it?’ It would be a real help.”

MeritMore, created by Neeta Vallab, mother of three in New York

PRICE: Free.

PAIN POINT: Ms. Vallab’s household income is high enough that her children were not going to qualify for need-based aid. But the earnings aren’t high enough to comfortably pay full price for all of them, either, especially at private colleges.

“The colleges tell you, ‘Don’t worry, most people don’t pay the sticker price,’” she said. “But nobody tells you what price they actually pay.”

All colleges are required to offer so-called net price calculators on their websites. When they’re accurate — sometimes they are not, if colleges don’t use good ones or maintain them well — they can give families a rough sense of how much need-based aid they might get. Schools are not, however, required to estimate how much merit aid you might get.

So Ms. Vallab built a tool to do that. It begins with various averages that the colleges publish on a little-known government website and then uses an algorithm to evaluate a list of prospective schools — and suggest others that might discount more.

THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW: One problem with net price calculators is that you have to fill them out one by one, often with the same data. Ms. Vallab believes there should be a single universal one that would spit out estimates for any school.

Moore College Data, created by Leigh N. Moore, mother of three in Prospect, Ky.

PRICE: $49.

PAIN POINT: Ms. Moore has worked as a dentist and a math teacher and did some college counseling over the years. But families’ need for the right data at the right moment hit home when one of her children was at his undergraduate orientation before classes had started.

Ms. Moore was aware of a figure showing a low four-year graduation rate for men at his college. A fifth year would mean piles of debt. So he went to the registrar’s office seeking an ironclad plan to graduate on time.

“He came out white as a ghost,” Ms. Moore said. “They had told him that they didn’t think there was any way he was getting out in four years.”

The pair eventually pulled the plug, and another school was still willing to offer him the same discount he had declined a few months earlier. Thus a business was born, trying to round up things as diverse as graduation rates and campus crime statistics — and hand them over to families.

“Good data ought to prompt good conversations,” she said.

THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW: Ms. Moore wants the so-called award letters that purport to explain an accepted student’s financial aid package to include a net price, or the bottom line that families will be responsible for after they subtract grants from the list price but before they choose to take out any loans. Believe it or not, many colleges don’t present that figure clearly — or at all.

College Tables, created by Brian O’Meara, father of two in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

PRICE: Free.

PAIN POINT: “People have different approaches to dealing with anxiety,” Dr. O’Meara told me via email. “Mine is to gather lots and lots of data.”

As a professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, he is used to making sense of piles of data, and the numbers he has collected about college are voluminous, including plenty of data on price and financial aid.

They are also a window into his own family’s needs. His children care about whether they’re living in a desert or a forest more than whether sports teams are good, so he includes information about weather and biome. His daughter likes seeing mountains around her, so he’s puzzling through how mountains could present themselves in data he adds to his collection in the future.

Health and social issues are on his agenda, too, like abortion availability and the risk of anti-transgender legislation.

THERE OUGHTA BE A LAW: Dr. O’Meara would like there to be more information about misconduct of all sorts at schools.

He also wishes there was better understanding of student and alumni satisfaction. To him, average debt and salary aren’t enough.

“Someone could have a joyful, fulfilling life making a difference as a social worker or an artist if they are paid decently, even if they still make far less money than an investment banker,” he said. “If all goes well, college should launch someone into the life they want.”

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