10 Things You Need to Know About Net Price Calculators

The tools can help you gauge college costs if you know how to use them.

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Every college and university in the United States now has its own online net price calculator, a tool that allows prospective students and parents to discover what higher education might actually cost them. 

Net price calculators offer a free launching point in the otherwise expensive process of searching for the right college. While campus visit costs and application fees will eventually add up, experimenting with schools' online tools is free to anyone, whether you or your child will be starting college next year or not. 

[Find out how to apply to college for free.] 

The tools aim to be helpful gadgets for parents and students to add to their college decision arsenals, with the hope of showing what schools with high sticker prices might actually be within a reasonable ballpark for families. Still, they're not made for everyone, and they're not yet fully transparent in what they calculate. Here are some important but often nondescript factors about the tools to keep in mind as you experiment with net price calculators: 

1. Who they work for: The federal requirement for net price calculators mandates that schools provide data on first-time, full-time undergraduates. Because school financial aid packages can change dramatically after freshman year, it's important to remember that calculator findings may only be an estimate of your first year of tuition. 

2. Who they don't work for: Students who are interested in an out-of-state institution might be out of luck, as public colleges may base calculations on in-state tuition data, financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz writes in "Flaws in the Statutory Definition of Net Price."  

[See the 10 least expensive out-of-state schools.] 

The calculators are not applicable to any undergraduate international students, who are increasingly expected to pay full tuition at budget-strapped U.S. universities. (If you are an international student, try contacting the financial aid offices of the colleges you're considering.) 

Additionally, unless a school specifically builds in a section for graduate students, anyone interested in pursuing law or medicine, among other advanced degrees, will not be able to estimate their net costs. 

3. What years they're good for: The federal requirement did not mandate a specific year of data to use. Therefore, some colleges might currently be basing cost estimates on what freshmen paid in the 2009-2010 school year; others will be using 2010-2011 school year information. 

Most importantly, no calculator is currently using data that is applicable to years in the future. This will be especially problematic for parents who hope to get an accurate estimate of the tuition cost for a child who is still very young. Keep in mind that tuition will likely increase beyond what your calculator estimates. 

4. What you'll need to use them: To get the most accurate net price calculator estimate possible, you'll need to have a strong grasp of your family's financial situation. For some calculators, you might need to have income and tax statements at hand—or a parent close by who knows the numbers. While some calculators take less than 10 minutes to use, it may be best to allot a significant amount of time for experimentation with more in-depth calculators. 

Keep your information close by; you'll need to re-enter your data into the calculators of each school you're considering. 

5. What they include: Net price is defined as the total cost of school (tuition, room and board, and other expenses) minus the amount of need-based aid you receive based on your family's financial situation. At a minimum, the tools will provide an estimate of need-based aid in your calculations. 

Some schools have opted to add other estimates, such as scholarships you might be eligible for, too, though many have not. If merit aid isn't included in the calculation of a school you're interested in, remember that your costs may ultimately be different once scholarships are considered. Be wary of school calculators that also subtract loans from your final estimate; those are costs you will have to pay back one day.