'Tis the season - to fill out college applications. Yes, in addition to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's, millions of parents and students also experience the joy of applying for college this time of year.

'Tis the season - to fill out college applications. Yes, in addition to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's, millions of parents and students also experience the joy of applying for college this time of year. The good news is there's a new tool that makes it easier to compare colleges and their costs.

In mid-September, the U.S. Department of Education released its College Scorecard, a free, searchable database that allows you to compare vital statistics from two- and four-year degree programs. The data, which are presented in simple, easy-to-decipher graphs, include the average actual cost to attend (versus the often jaw-dropping sticker price), graduation rate, average amount of federal loans borrowed per student and the average earnings of students 10 years after entering college. The goal of the database, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, is to "provide a snapshot about an institution's cost and value to help families make smart decisions about where to enroll."

The database is at collegescorecard.ed.gov. Check out the online version of this story for a chart I compiled with stats for popular Ohio universities.

The information and tools College Scorecard provides are incredibly handy. An online calculator estimates what you would likely pay out of pocket after financial aid. Another section breaks down the average cost to attend a school but organizes it relative to family income. For example, Denison University in Granville has a sticker price of $46,250 for the 2015-2016 school year. The database indicates the average student actually pays $23,507. Students whose parents make between $30,001 and $48,000 pay an average of $11,792, while students whose parents earn more than $110,000 pay an average of $32,468.

The scorecard also shows what percentage of students graduate with loan debt; the total average debt per student; average monthly loan payments, as well as how many students are actually able to pay back those loans. At Denison, 52 percent of students receive federal loans, and the average total debt is $25,000. About 95 percent of those kids are paying loans back, at an average cost of $278 a month.

As college costs soar, the nagging question has become whether the cost of getting a degree will pay off. There's no easy answer to that, but, thanks to the scorecard, we get a glimpse of how well students are doing financially 10 years after entering college. The database uses IRS data to track actual incomes. Back to Denison: Its graduates earn an average of $48,600 a decade after entering college, which is about $14,000 more than the national average for all college graduates who had received financial aid. Also, per the data, 64 percent of Denison grads earn more than workers with only a high-school diploma by that 10-year mark.

The College Scorecard also crunches some interesting numbers. It provides lists of two-year colleges at which graduates earn high salaries after graduation, a list of 30 four-year schools with low costs and high graduation rates and another list of 15 public colleges with high graduation rates and high salaries.

The College Scorecard isn't a substitute for that deep-down butterfly feeling when a school is perfect for your child, nor the security of holding an actual financial-aid package in your hand, but it can be a helpful tool in making many higher-education decisions this spring.

Sample Ohio College Scorecard

College

Average cost to attend

Graduation rate

Salary after attending

Percentage of students with loans

Average loan balance

Ohio State Main Campus

$17,866

83 percent

$42,600

46 percent

$22,250

Ohio University Main Campus

$19,416

65 percent

$39,500

52 percent

$22,500

Denison

$23,507

83 percent

$48,600

52 percent

$25,000

Capital University

$22,271

59 percent

$41,400

80 percent

$27,000

Otterbein

$24,850

59 percent

$41,200

70 percent

$27,000

Kenyon College

$28,132

90 percent

$43,700

52 percent

$18,305

Franklin University

$21,775

13 percent

$48,300

70 percent

$25,000

Kent State

$19,249

52 percent

$36,600

63 percent

$26,225

Bowling Green

$17,793

56 percent

$39,000

69 percent

$26,000

-Denise Trowbridge is a self-professed money geek who writes about personal finance, banking and insurance for The Columbus Dispatch, bankrate.com and middlepathfinance.com.