4 Things You Need to Use a Net Price Calculator

With the right materials, you can get a more accurate estimate of college costs.

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Net price calculators aim to add more transparency to college costs, but the tools can't be accurate estimates unless the information you're inputting is correct, too. 

[Find out how to pay for college.] 

There are a variety of net price calculators, some of which have 10 or fewer questions, and others that include upward of 50. Each aims to estimate how much you'll have to pay out of pocket, after the grant aid you might be eligible for is deducted. 

To get these estimates, some calculators, including the simple federal template adopted by many schools, only require knowledge of a salary range for you or your parents; others ask detailed questions that require financial records. 

If you're considering more than one college, you may need to have more robust information for one school's net price calculator than for another's. (If you'd like to estimate your college costs for a variety of schools that use different templates, you'll have to input your data into each calculator. If the schools you're interested in each use the College Board template, however, you'll be able to carry over some of your information to subsequent estimates.) 

[Access the net price calculators of more than 250 colleges.] 

To make sure you're prepared for even the more detailed net price calculators, have these items nearby: 

1. Federal tax forms: Some calculators ask what tax form your parents (or you, if you're not financially dependent) either have filled out or plan to complete. Having forms such as your 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ, or W2 likely will help to answer subsequent questions, which may include wages, earnings, tax credits, and itemized deductions. 

2. Bank statements: Some calculators will ask for amounts of money you or your parents have in cash, savings, and checking accounts, as well as information about any investments. 

3. Property information: If you or your parents own one or more homes, you may be required to report the value of your property, as well as what you currently owe. 

4. Academic records: For schools that use merit-based estimates in their calculations, you may need to have your (or your student's) GPA and SAT or ACT scores. It might help to have your high school transcript on hand, too. 

Don't forget to factor in enough time to work with net price calculators, as getting an accurate estimate can take 10 to 30 minutes per school. 

Also, keep in mind that even with the right paperwork and diligence, the school calculators can only produce rough estimates of the cost of a college education. They do not calculate exact totals and should only be used to get a ballpark idea of what a particular school may cost for a full-time undergraduate who hails from the United States and who is enrolling in college for the first time.

Get more financial aid information at the U.S. News Net Price Calculator center.