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Every year, a new crop of parents joins the college search rat race with their student and is shocked that finding out how much college costs is so complicated — nothing like their own college days.

Locating averages is simple enough: According to the College Board, the average listed price of an in-state public university last year was $22,180, while private colleges averaged $50,770.

The thing is, most students don’t pay the published price, particularly at private colleges. And figuring out your family’s likely price — determined in part by what a college determines you can afford — is no simple feat, especially when factoring in student loans.

“College pricing isn’t transparent,” says Stephanie Hancock, a private college counselor and owner of California-based College Aid Consulting. “Imagine going into a shoe store and asking, ‘how much is this pair,’ only to have the salesperson ask, ‘how much have you got in your wallet?’”

In fact, you can’t get a precise, individualized price at most colleges until after you’ve applied, been accepted and received your financial aid letter. But there are tools you can use much earlier in the application process that can help you estimate your individual costs or generate college lists based on financial aid. Here’s how they work.

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Tools That Help You Find a Reliable College Cost Estimate

Net Price Calculators

  • Free to use
  • Tailored to school-specific costs
  • Typically straightforward and easy to use
  • Each college has its own net price calculator
  • Some calculators are more accurate than others

Every college is required to have a net price calculator on its website that gives families an idea of what they’d pay after subtracting grants and scholarships. But some of these calculators are more accurate than others. Generally, the more questions they ask, the better the calculators are, experts say. You’ll have to go to each individual college you’re interested in and submit information about your family’s finances to get an estimate.

College Aid Pro

  • Has a free-to-use version
  • Can help predict scholarship award offers and need-based grants before you receive them
  • Projects for future expense changes, such as tuition increases
  • Free version is limited and the full version costs $149
  • Free version only calculates for three colleges at a time

The free version of this tool offers information on financial aid and scholarship eligibility for up to three colleges. You’ll input grades, test scores and basic information on parent income and assets. The tool then calculates scholarships and need-based grants your student is likely to qualify for and compares awards across the colleges you’ve selected. Vicki Beam, owner of Michigan College Planning, likes College Aid Pro’s software, and says it also does a good job of projecting annual tuition increases, which can help you understand costs beyond the first year.

That said, the free version is quite limited with the ability to compare just three colleges. A $149 subscription gets you unlimited comparisons and other perks like an advanced college search and on-demand coaching. For $299, you also get a one-on-one meeting with an industry expert.

College Data

  • 100% free to use
  • Can help you identify colleges that are generous with scholarship offers
  • Allows you to filter colleges by attributes such as geography and admissions selectivity
  • Doesn't help you calculate personalized expenses
  • Features for comparing aid awards at different schools are limited

This free tool allows you to create a college list by attributes such as geography, size, admissions selectivity, cost of attendance or “financial needs met.” For example, you could filter by your state and 100% “meets need” to come up with a list of colleges generous with financial aid (or learn that your state doesn’t have any). But the list doesn’t show your personalized costs. For that, there are a couple calculators and tools to help you estimate and later to compare your financial aid awards at various schools. (Editor’s note: As of publishing, these features are in the process of being updated and aren’t available.)

College Insights

  • Helps you determine the likelihood of being admitted to colleges you're interested in attending
  • Offers crowdsourced financial aid and scholarship details
  • Offers a free 7-day trial
  • After 7 days, you will need to pay $24.99 per month to continue using the tool until you cancel
  • Tool doesn't list estimated costs

This college search tool will show you the average GPA and test scores associated with a college, as well as admission rates, like the share of students admitted during the “early decision” round compared to “regular decision." The tool doesn’t list estimated costs. But it does crowdsource financial aid and merit scholarship details so families who know their “expected family contribution,” or EFC, from the FAFSA can look at the prices given to others with the same EFC. (You don’t have to wait to fill out the FAFSA during senior year to predict your EFC. More on that below.) Check out the tool with a free 7-day trial. After that, it’s $24.99 per month until you cancel.

College Raptor

  • Free to use
  • Generates an easy-to-follow list of your top college matches
  • Shows an estimated net price for every college you're considering
  • Makes it easier to compare college prices than standard net price calculators
  • It won't match you to colleges; you have to input your schools of interest instead
  • Doesn't offer as many features for personalized expense planning as other options

Unlike College Data and College Aid Pro, this tool asks you to input your colleges of interest. That’s not a bad thing, but it requires your student to know the colleges they’re interested in rather than generating a list for you based on factors like region or school size. After you pick your schools, the site will then generate a set of “college matches” based on your information and show an estimated net price for each one much like colleges’ net price calculators do, but in a platform that’s easy to compare colleges.

Tuition Fit

  • Leverages user-submitted data to offer in-depth pricing insights
  • Will generate a list of college matches for you
  • Can provide more personalized pricing data than competitors
  • Premium accounts cost $49
  • You won't be able to view as much personalized data unless you pay for the premium tool

Tuition Fit calls itself the Kelley Blue Book of college pricing because it relies heavily on user-submitted financial aid packages to help families estimate their own college prices. You input your student’s academic information, parent financials, and expected family contribution to generate a list of colleges in your range. A premium account for $49 allows you to see actual college prices, drawn from real families’ financial aid awards that they upload to the site. You can see how your student stacks up with those who have similar grades, test scores and financial information.

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Tips for using tools to estimate your college costs

Financial planning tools can make finding and choosing colleges that align with your long-term financial goals more manageable. However, their effectiveness often comes down to how you use them. Consider these tips while weighing which financial planning tool to use, if any:

  • No single college cost estimator provides everything: You may need to use multiple tools to get a realistic understanding and clear breakdown of your estimated college costs.
  • Estimates are not 100% perfect: You can use these tools as general guides but shouldn’t make concrete financial plans based on them until you receive an official offer.
  • Start by learning your family’s expected contribution: This will tell you whether your student will qualify for financial aid. You get the number after submitting FAFSA paperwork.
  • Most tools use the same data: Some also utilize proprietary crowdsourced data, but the fundamental differences often come down to how each tool displays the data. This means your results should be similar across most tools.

To get an early estimate of your EFC before you officially apply to college and file the FAFSA, you can use the College Board’s EFC calculator, which allows you to calculate a federal EFC (what you'd get from the FAFSA) as well as an institutional EFC (what you'd get from an additional financial aid form called the CSS Profile).

Benefits of using college price estimation tools

The most significant benefit of using college price estimation tools is gaining more insight into the total cost of college. These tools can provide prospective students with essential information, such as the following:

  • How much financial aid or federal student aid they may qualify for
  • Whether they should expect to pay sticker price at the schools they’re considering
  • Affordability tips to keep the cost of higher education as low as possible throughout the academic year
  • Student debt repayment options and how changes in scholarship amounts, school choices, and aid offered by the U.S. Department of Education impact them

Tools such as the net price calculator and MyIntuition are also free to use, so there’s often no downside to trying several as you figure out how to pay for college.

College price estimation tools FAQs

How accurate are college price estimation tools?


Most college price estimation tools use publicly available data published by the federal government. This data is based on actual student outcomes but may not always reflect the offers your student receives from different colleges.

Some platforms also use proprietary data. Take this data with a grain of salt: It's submitted by users and may not always require verification.

Do college price estimation tools help me understand how much financial aid I might be eligible for?

Many college price estimation tools will help you understand your eligibility for financial aid. They often calculate it by analyzing your estimated family contribution (EFC). Just keep in mind that these tools are only offering predictions, not guarantees.

Can I compare different colleges using price estimation tools?

Yes, some tools allow you to compare the estimated costs of different colleges. However, this isn't true of every tool. For example, a school's net price calculator typically won't allow you to compare costs with other colleges. That's why using multiple price estimation tools while conducting your research is a good idea.

Are college price estimation tools free?

Some price estimation tools are free, while others charge a one-time or monthly fee. That said, you can usually find a tool to give you the information you want for free. Most tools rely on the same publicly-available data. You shouldn't have to pay unless you want access to a premium tool that provides more in-depth financial planning advice or access to user-submitted data.