Why Harvard Is Cheaper Than You Think

One of the most unfortunate aspects of rising higher education costs is that high-achieving, low-income students oftentimes don't know that some of the cheapest places to attend college are actually the ones with the highest list prices. Wellesley College is now trying to change that.

Take, for example, Harvard, where, like other elite colleges, sizable endowments often enable the school to award large scholarships to poor and even middle class students.

Harvard's published annual cost is about $60,000 — not exactly cheap. However, parents of Harvard students making less than $65,000 are expected to make no contribution to tuition. Parents making between $65,000 and $150,000 normally pay no more than 10 percent of their income, a pretty monumental discount.

As the New York Times Economix blog points out, elite colleges haven't exactly been effective at spreading the word about the real cost of enrollment to potential applicants and their families. Many low-income families imagine schools like Harvard are beyond their reach. Regrettably, a recent study found that most low-income students with the grades to be admitted to such colleges don't even apply.

That's where Wellesley's new calculator comes in. The all-girls college is unveiling a new cost-of-college calculator that enables users to see what they'll actually pay for college. Officially, the calculator only applies to Wellesley, but financial aid policies are similar enough across elite colleges that the calculator will help families determine what they would likely pay at schools that, like Wellesley, claim to be need-blind. Plus, we can hope that other schools will take note of Wellesley's innovation and make moves to produce similar applications.

Here's the explainer Wellesley provides on the cost calculator website:

This tool asks six basic financial questions and gives you an early estimate of your daughter’s annual cost to attend Wellesley. The estimator’s result is based on the information you provide. It is an estimate, a starting point. If your daughter applies to Wellesley, our Office of Student Financial Services will work with you on a detailed analysis of your family’s financial situation and circumstances to provide your daughter with an actual financial aid award and final cost.

Although Wellesley's calculator isn't the first of its kind (Harvard actually has one, as does the College Board), Economix's David Leonhardt says its the simplest one he's ever seen. A family that knows its financial information can receive an estimate in as little as a minute. (Geico, take note.)