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There's a lot to consider when you're trying to decide where to go to college. Would you rather study at a large or small school? How close to home do you want to be? What sort of extracurricular activities do you want to explore? The fit and feel of a school are important, and college brochures and campus visits can help you get a sense of both.

There's another question to consider, though. How much will the school cost? If you run the numbers and find that you could save thousands of dollars more a year by going to your second-choice school, that may be a worthwhile trade-off.

To help you make an informed comparison, you can use the following tools and information to estimate the cost of each college.

The Net Price of Attendance

While you might experience a bit of sticker shock when you see the cost of tuition and fees, most students pay less than the published rate according to The College Board. That's because many students receive scholarships or grants - financial aid that you don't have to pay back.

You can use each school's net price calculator to get an estimate of how much you may spend. The net price calculator can be difficult to find at times, but every post-secondary institution must have one on its website. The Department of Education's (ED's) website can help you find a school's calculator if you're having trouble.

The calculators consider the projected cost of tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies and miscellaneous personal expenses. It then subtracts your estimated financial aid to give you an estimated cost of attendance for your first year.

Even if you don't know how much aid you will receive, the calculators base the results on grants and scholarships that similar students received in the past. To help the calculator approximate your financial aid awards, you'll likely need to enter your grades and standardized test scores, along with information about your family's income, assets and taxes.

You can use the net price calculator results to compare the estimated first-year cost of your prospective schools. This can change one year to the next for a variety of reasons including the school increasing its tuition and fees, your personal financial circumstances changing or choosing to study abroad. You might find that a school you thought was out of your price range could be a viable option because it could award a more generous financial aid package to similar students.

The Four-Year Graduation Rate

Comparing schools' average graduation rates can also help you estimate the cost of attendance and identify best-fit colleges. The longer it takes you to complete your degree, the more you'll have to pay in college expenses.

According to the most-recent data available from ED, on average only 39.8% of the first-time, full-time students who started at a four-year institution in 2008 completed their degree in four years. An additional 19.8% finished in the following two years.

There are many reasons that individual students may drop out or extend their studies, but there are trends in the data. The same report found the average four-year graduation rate at nonprofit institutions was 52.7%, but it was only 17.5% at for-profit schools.

Look for a school's graduation rates on or by using the National Center for Education Statistics' College Navigator tool. You can find the percentage of students that graduated within four, five or six years, and a breakdown based on the sex and race/ethnicity of the students.

Keep in mind that the graduation rate includes all students that graduated within that time frame. If you find a school has a 70% four-year graduation rate and 80% five-year graduation rate, you can deduce that 10% of the students took five years to graduate.

When a school you're considering has a low four-year graduation rate, you may want to ask the school for more details, such as a breakdown of graduation rates by major. It may be that overcrowded classes or a demanding workload led students within a certain major to take an extra year.

Bottom Line

Finding a good college fit can take time. Much of the decision may rest on the intangibles of a school such as its social and academic environments, but you also want to consider the financial impact of your choice. The schools' net price calculators and graduation rates can help you make an informed decision when comparing the cost of different colleges.

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