Use online tools to gauge the cost of college.

3 Tools to Gauge College Costs and Returns

Start research early to find the best school for you or your child.

Use online tools to gauge the cost of college.
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When it comes to preparing for your child's college education, it's almost never too early to start the research and investigation process. 

"It's typically around sophomore year of high school that families start to do the gearing up—I think that's too late," says Thomas Blum, vice president for administration at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. "The sooner parents can begin to bear down on, 'How are we going to afford this,' ... just getting comfortable with the terminology and with the mix of financial aid supports that are out there—it's never too early." 

[See how you can start saving for an infant's future education.]

Here are three tools parents and students can use to familiarize themselves with the ins and outs of college costs and postgraduate success. 

1. Net price calculators: Every college and university has a calculator online that allows prospective college students and their families to see what a particular institution might cost them. Using a family's own financial information—and, sometimes, a student's academic profile—the government-mandated calculators aim to estimate a year's net price, taking into account any aid the student might receive. 

[Explore net price calculators for the top 250 colleges.] 

Though the free tools can be used at any time, parents may want to start to toy with net price calculators when their students enter high school, says Pat Watkins, director of financial aid at Eckerd College in Florida. But keep in mind that the findings are only rough estimates—especially if the calculator you're using has only a few basic questions, such as asking for your household's salary range, rather than a specific figure with which to make calculations. 

"If you're working with a calculator that seems abridged, be careful," Blum of Sarah Lawrence says. "It might be worth calling the financial aid office of that school and saying, 'I'm just nervous this number is not realistic.' ... Parents should never shy away from calling a financial aid office and being very direct about the calculator—and any set of questions about financial aid." 

2. Loan calculators: If you plan on borrowing to help pay for college, it's important to map out your estimated monthly payments ahead of time and to try to take out a manageable debt load for you. Tools such as FinAid.org's loan calculator help future borrowers to estimate monthly loan repayments, taking into account interest rates, loan fees, and repayment terms. 

Students should at least use loan estimators when they're evaluating financial aid award packages from colleges, notes Watkins from Eckerd College. A manageable post-graduation loan repayment should be about 10 percent of your gross monthly income, experts recommend. 

3. Graduation comparisons: Mapping out your post-graduate income may be a bit easier with a new college comparison tool from NerdWallet, a personal finance website that's offering students a novel way to look at college choices based on outcomes. The tool enables students to see what percentage of graduates from specific university departments are employed and what they're earning on average, based on student- and school-reported data. 

Graduates from the Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science, for instance, earn an average of $79,551, according to NerdWallet, while the average graduate from the Georgia Institute of Technology College of Computing nets $60,000. Prospective students can also judge colleges based on student employment rates or the percentages of graduates pursuing other degrees, among other outcomes. 

"I don't think people ever think this way," says NerdWallet's vice president of deposit products, Stephanie Wei. "It makes [students] think long term—not just, 'I want to get into school' ... [but] picking the right institution for them so they're not lost after school." 

Searching for a college? Explore the complete rankings of Best Colleges.