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.
6. What they calculate: Even at schools with the most comprehensive calculators, the findings will be estimates, not the actual figure you'll be paying if you're admitted and enroll. Your true net price could be thousands of dollars more or less than what a calculator estimated, depending on factors such as decreases in school aid, increasing tuition, or a change in your family's financial situation.
7. What they don't produce: Schools are required to include this disclaimer, but make sure you're clear: Calculator findings are in no way a guarantee that you'll be admitted to a certain college or, if you are accepted, that you'll receive a set amount of funding in your first year or in subsequent years.
8. How they might differ: The federal government created a free calculator template for all schools to use. However, many schools have opted for other calculators, either created by a vendor or by the school itself, that might be more accurate to their individual institutions. Because of this and the reasons listed above, the net price estimate you'll receive using one school's calculator may not be comparable to the estimate you get using another institution's tool.
[See why custom calculators might be more accurate.]
9. Where you might find them: Schools are required to have a calculator—not to have one that's easy to find. While some colleges prominently display their calculators on their financial aid websites, other net price calculators are much harder to find.
To make it easier for you, U.S. News has tracked down net price calculators for more than 250 top colleges.
10. What their limitations mean for you: While you won't get a perfect picture of the price of college, net price calculators, if used correctly, should give you a relatively accurate ballpark figure.
The estimates might show a prospective student that a school with an extremely high sticker price is actually affordable with need-based aid, or might motivate parents of young children to start saving early. Just remember to take each finding with a grain of salt, and not to rule out one school because its calculation is less than another's—for all the reasons above.
If you have any questions as you experiment with net price calculators, contact the financial aid offices of the colleges you are considering.
Get more financial aid information at the U.S. News Net Price Calculator center.