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Here's EXACTLY How to Talk About the Cost of College With Your Child

Parents and teens often have very different priorities for selecting a school. While parents often focus on the career and personal investment of college, students are more likely to consider things like quality of housing, proximity to friends and other day-to-day living issues.

In this article, we're going to break down exactly how to help your teen understand the hard-to-conceptualize costs of college—and how they can have a huge impact on their future. 

What to do: step-by-step instructions

Here at Nitro, we’ve developed the NitroScore tool to cut through the confusion and break down college costs into tangible figures.

After plugging in some information about your finances and your child's school selection, you'll receive a NitroScore somewhere between 0 and 1000.


A higher NitroScore means that you're probably making a good financial decision. A lower NitroScore means that student loan debt may be hard to overcome. 

When all is said and done, you'll have a report that looks like this:

Nitro 13 more aid

In this article, we're going to walk you through how to use NitroScore to:

  1. Get a preliminary cost estimate based on your teen's desired school and major
  2. Forecast how financial aid, scholarships, and other sources of funding affect total out-of-pocket costs
  3. Estimate how take-home pay after graduation will be affected by student loan payments
  4. Compare student loan interest rates to view the impact on monthly payments
  5. Demonstrate how longer or shorter payment terms can impact overall debt after graduation
  6. View future salary forecasts
  7. Get personalized recommendations to reduce student loan debt based on your student's unique circumstances
  8. Create an apples-to-apples cost comparison between different schools, and
  9. See  how different majors may impact overall cost and debt.

1. Get a preliminary cost estimate (before financial aid)

On the first screen of the NitroScore tool, you can type in your school and major of choice.  (Note: we'll use screenshots throughout this article to walk you through the process. Go to NitroScore to use the tool for yourself.)

Nitro 1

When selecting a public college or university, make sure to indicate whether the school is in-state or out-of-state so the correct tuition is reflected.

Let’s say, for instance, your child is considering Virginia Tech (found under its official name Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) on an in-state basis for civil engineering: 

Nitro 2

The NitroScore for this school and major is 437 out of 1,000. That sounds low, right? No worries—we're just getting started. This is a baseline score that doesn't take into account financial aid, family contributions, or any other sources of funding.

Let's take care of that right now.

2. Add in financial aid and other sources of funding

If you click Refine My Score and scroll down to the second screen, you'll see how these educational costs were calculated.

 Nitro 3

The drop-down field for years in school is pre-filled with four years and the yearly and total educational costs are shown.

A student who attends Virginia Tech for civil engineering would pay $21,187 per year for a total of $84,748 over four years.

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Below this field we can see how different funding sources affect the score. 

Nitro 4

Most students have additional funding sources, be it scholarships, grants, family or personal savings, a part-time job, or another source entirely. 

Let's say our student receives a yearly scholarship of $8,000 from the school and also plans to make about $5,000 each year by waiting tables part-time to help pay for school.

If we input those amounts, the NitroScore updates to reflect these changes. 

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3. Estimate take-home salary after graduation v. student loan payments

With these new funds, the NitroScore for our Virginia Tech civil engineering graduate has gone up to 748.

Their monthly student loan payment will now only be 11% of their after-tax income—and they’ll have $2,956 in their pocket after they make their student loan payment. 

NitroScore even accounts for taxes, so your child can get a true feel for how much they can put toward living expenses.  

4. Compare student loan interest rates

If you click Next on the bottom left, you’ll see more information about the terms of the student loans for our Virginia Tech civil engineer.

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You can see our graduate’s estimated monthly student loan payment is $380, or $4,563 yearly.

Our NitroScore tool assumes our student will take out loans with an interest rate of 7% and take 10 years to pay it back.

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5. Compare shorter or longer loan repayment terms

Use the sliders to adjust the settings for interest rate and loan term.


You can adjust the loan term to see if a loan payment might be more affordable if the loan term is extended (i.e., lower monthly payments but for a longer period of time).

Reducing the loan term will mean an earlier payoff and will reduce the amount of interest paid over the life of the loan. This is a great way to save money. 

6. Forecast future salary

Clicking Next again reveals the salary the tool uses to estimate the NitroScore and the take-home pay amounts. 

Nitro 7

Our civil engineer is estimated to earn a yearly salary of $57,200 with an after-tax yearly salary of $40,040.

The tool also includes a slider to adjust the yearly salary for your child.

As we all know, there are a range of available salaries for any one given profession. Just because our graduate receives a civil engineering degree, doesn’t guarantee they’ll get a job that pays $57,200.

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Depending on the city where they live, the grades they get in school, and many other factors, their final salary after college could be more or less than the average.

Use the slider to discuss these scenarios and how they could impact your child’s future earnings.

7. Get personalized recommendations

 The last screen of the NitroScore tool gives context to your score.

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You can see that the range of scores is color-coded. The lower scores fall in the red “Take Caution” end of the spectrum. Scores in the orange and yellow areas in the middle range are labeled “Consider” and the green end of the spectrum is labeled “Preferred.”

In general, the higher the score is, the easier it will be for your child to pay back their loans.

See also: 50+ African American Scholarships for College Students

Our Virginia Tech engineer who graduates in four years, earns $8,000 in scholarships and $5,000 in part-time work and takes out loans with a standard repayment term and interest rate has a NitroScore of 748.

This screen gives you more information about how the NitroScore measures up and advises you on options for boosting it.

8. Compare colleges

If your high schooler is like most students, they're probably considering a number of different schools and/or majors.

One of the best features of the NitroScore tool is the ability to compare and contrast a number of potential scenarios to see which are most financially feasible.

If you click the button for Save below your NitroScore, you can email yourself a unique link to save all of the settings that you used to create your score.

And if you click Compare and View Comparisons, your score will be added to the comparison table at the bottom of the page.

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From here, you can click the Create Another Scenario to add other schools, majors and funding options to compare it all in one handy chart.

Let’s go back to the student who was considering Virginia Tech for civil engineering.

Perhaps our student is also considering Duke University.

Let’s assume everything else stays the same. Our student still majors in civil engineering, still receives an $8,000 annual scholarship, earns $5,000 through a part-time job, takes out student loans with a standard rate and repayment term, and earns the average salary of $57,200.

Note: We're keeping these numbers the same for comparison purposes, but keep in mind that different schools will offer different levels of financial aid. Be sure to run the numbers twice—once while your student is deciding where to apply, and again after their financial aid award letters arrive. 

Nitro 10 more aid

By just changing schools from the in-state public school Virginia Tech to the private Duke, our student’s NitroScore drops to 156. Doh!

Our graduate is now paying 70%—more than two-thirds—of their take-home pay towards student loans and they only have $1,002 for all other living expenses each month.

We can again click the Compare button to add it to our comparison table at the bottom of the page.

Let’s add another school option: Penn State’s Main Campus. Since our student attends high school in Virginia, we need to be sure to select the button for out-of-state under the school name.

We’ll again keep all the other factors the same. This gives our Penn State civil engineering grad a NitroScore of 308.

Nitro 11 more aid

9. Compare majors

Lastly, let’s take a look at how major factors in.

If you don't look at potential income after graduation, you're not seeing the whole picture. 

Let’s say our student sticks with Virginia Tech, but wants to major in film studies instead of civil engineering.

Again, keeping all other fields the same, our Virginia Tech student with a film major gets a NitroScore of 646.

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We can again add this score to our comparison table by clicking Compare. Now we have four different scenarios to consider.

Remember, when you click the Compare button, select the option to View Comparisons to navigate straight to the bottom of the page where the scenarios are ranked by score.

Nitro 13 more aid

From this, we can see our student’s best option is to attend Virginia Tech for civil engineering — from a purely dollars cents perspective, at least.  If the student really wants to be a film major but goes into civil engineering because of outside pressure, well, we don't have a score for career dissatisfaction just yet. 

In any case, we also see that the the "big name" school, Duke, is not going to be a wise financial move for this particular student, unless they are able to find some more sources of funding. 

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We also see that our out-of-state public school, Penn State, is a better deal for civil engineering, than our private school Duke—though neither beats in-state public university Virginia Tech.

Try it for yourself

It’s a good idea to experiment with the tool to show your child how different circumstances can affect their finances.

 For example, try to see how the following affects your NitroScore:

  • Reduce the number of years in school to three or increase it to five. The change can inform your child about the importance of making sure they stay on track to graduate in four years or less.

  • Add or subtract different funding sources. You can explore how earning just $500 extra per year at a part-time job could change their student loan needs, or show them how much a scholarship means in real dollars.

  • How different majors can impact expected salary.

  • Whether a change in school or major is better for your child’s bottom line.

  • How much a change in salary changes your child’s take-home pay for a given school and major — you can use this function to discuss things like salary negotiation and job choice to show your child just how much that salary boost will mean for their monthly budget.

Things to keep in mind

Know your school

A school’s reputation or prestige may affect the income that a graduate can demand on the job market. That is, someone with a business degree from Harvard is likely to earn more than someone with a business degree from Florida State University.

Be realistic about your choices

If your child struggles with math and science, they’re likely not going to be earning the salary of a neurosurgeon.

Don’t try to stretch your budget too much

You should only make your final choices based on the funds you know you will have.

Remember that not graduating changes the whole picture

It’s important to let your child know that if they aren’t able to earn their degree, they’ll still have to pay their loans back, but they may have to do so on a much lower salary—and possiblly sooner than they anticipated.

More than anything, be open and communicative with your child. Share your insights, but also listen to their wants as well.

Setting realistic goals together and collaborating on strategies to reduce over-borrowing will set your child up for success and help to protect them from financial turmoil later in life. 

Want the scoop on the best private student loans of 2018? Check out our picks for the best deals out there. 

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