U.S. colleges have started, however reluctantly, to share more information about what students might actually pay to attend—the so-called net price. But the calculators that Congress has forced schools to provide since 2011 are often hard to find, vary widely in quality, and should be used with some caution.
The idea behind the law was to give families a rough, individualized estimate of what college might cost them once scholarships and grants are deducted from the sticker price. (Loans are not supposed to be included in the net price figure since borrowing increases rather than decreases the cost of education.)
A realistic estimate of costs would give families much better information before a child applies. Previously they only got true cost information after the student was accepted and had been offered financial aid.
But many people, including parents and even high school counselors, are not aware the calculators exist, said college consultant Lynn O'Shaughnessy, who runs TheCollegeSolution.com website.
Some colleges do not seem eager to enlighten them, even though the U.S. Department of Education last year urged schools to post the tools prominently in logical places.
One quarter of the 50 colleges randomly selected by the Institute for College Access and Success did not have links to their calculators on the financial aid or costs sections of their sites. Even when the calculator was on a relevant page, it was rarely posted prominently, the survey found.
Five of the 50 schools confused matters further by using some other name for the tool, such as "education cost calculator" or "tuition calculator."
The survey was conducted in 2012, but not much has changed, TICAS president Lauren Asher said last week.
To find New York University's calculator, for instance, users must click on three tabs—"Admissions," "Financial Aid and Scholarships," and finally "Financial Aid at NYU." At University of Pennsylvania, it takes four clicks to find the net price calculator, which is highlighted in a small blue box.
Harvard College, by contrast, posts its calculator on its financial aid home page, under the headline "You Can Afford Harvard."
Families often can find the elusive tools by entering the college's name and "net price calculator" into a search engine.
Another place to find links to net price calculators is on each college's information page on the College Board's Big Future site. This provides other critical aid information, such as the percentage of financial need each college meets.
One other potentially helpful tool is average net prices by income, or what other people actually paid. It can be found at the National Center for Education Statistics.
The Wide Range of Results
The relevance and accuracy of all this information can be questionable, though.
The difference between calculator estimates and actual costs for many families will be as little as $500, but for some, the gap could be as wide as $5,000, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of education resource website Edvisors.com.
The TICAS report said many colleges used outdated cost information in their net price calculators. In addition, 40% included estimates of "self-help," including work study and loans, and most made this lower "estimated remaining cost" figure more prominent than the federally required net price.
The calculators also vary dramatically in their design and the amount of information they require. The number of questions range from eight to 70, as some schools want the calculator to be as easy to use as possible, while others try for the most accurate results.
College access advocates such as TICAS worry that fewer families will complete the calculator if it is too complex or requires information that can only be gleaned from tax returns.
On the other side, consultants like O'Shaughnessy say the simplified versions' estimates can be far off base.
"Generally, the more questions asked by a net price calculator, the more accurate the results," Kantrowitz says. But he cautioned families against relying too heavily on the result of any calculator.
"Net price calculators provide a ballpark estimate of the real cost of the college," Kantrowitz says. "They tell you whether the college is inside or outside the ballpark of affordability but do not distinguish between home plate and center field."
More on college costs:
- The Best Colleges for Your Money
- The 25 Most Affordable Colleges
- How to Find a College That Won't Drown You in Debt
- 22 Colleges Where You Can Earn a Degree for Free