Resource guide: Online financial tools can help first-gen students reach their college completion goals

I was a mother when I left home to go to college as a first-generation student from a low-income family. My daughter is now a junior in high school, prepping for college herself. I have one brother in college and a second about to begin. I’ve worked on a college campus, and in my current job, I work each year with hundreds of low-income students, most of them the first in their families to go to college, as they try to navigate their way through the unfamiliar territory of campus life to achieve their educational goals: College completion.

These life experiences have given me a well-rounded perspective of what it takes for low-income and first-generation students to get to and through college. Academic preparation and noncognitive skills are all important. But I cannot emphasize enough the importance of understanding basic college costs.

Best-in-class online tools: Good financial information is a prerequisite for college completion success

Almost fifteen years ago when I attended college, relevant financial knowledge was hard to come by. There are now far more tools available online to help students and their families get a baseline understanding of college costs and financial aid resources. Some of my favorites:

  • The BigFuture web site by the College Board, which includes, among other tools, a scholarship search tool, a customizable action plan and a well-designed resource section on paying for college.
  • The College Board’s Net Price Calculator, which helps students and families estimate the net price of specific schools. The net price = (the cost of tuition + room and board + books + etc.) – (grants + scholarships for which students might be eligible).
  • The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) website, which includes an interactive map that allows users to easily research financial aid programs by state.
  • The US Department of Education’s College Affordability and Transparency Center, which includes links to colleges’ net price calculators, a college affordability and transparency list, and a college search tool with simple filters to allow users to easily sift schools by location and type.
  • The US Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid website, which includes an explanation of the types of aid available, checklists for academic and financial preparation that families can use at any point in a student’s K-12 career, and more.
  •, a site created by financial aid expert and author Mark Kantrowitz. offers information on scholarships, loans, early savings plans, financial aid application information, calculators and a range of other information.

Academic preparation and noncognitive skills are all important. But I cannot emphasize enough the importance of understanding basic college costs.

Online tools aren’t sufficient to prepare students from low-income families to navigate all the ins and outs of college affordability, but they’re an important resource. By accessing and exploring them early (even as early as middle school), families can ensure that they are better prepared to help their students make smart choices that help them get to and through college without overwhelming debt.