By a federal mandate, every college and university now has an online net price calculator, which you can use to estimate how much you will need to pay for college. But for the tools to be useful to parents and students, it's crucial to be aware of what is actually being calculated.
Net price, for the purposes of these calculators, is the total cost of one year of a college education for a first-time, full-time undergraduate, minus any grant aid you might receive. The new calculators estimate what need-based aid your family may be eligible for, sometimes requiring information from documents including income and tax statements, and then deduct that estimate of aid from the total cost for a full-time, first year student in a recent year. (The federal calculator template, arguably the most basic, requires some less specific information, including your parents' salary ranges, rather than precise dollar sums.)
The hope, then, is that students and parents may realize that a college with a high sticker price might be more affordable than it seems. Still, it's important to know that the estimate given by one school's calculator may be vastly different than the calculation of another, in part because of potentially different inputs.
While many schools are only deducting estimated federal need-based aid from their net price calculation totals, others may account for deductions including merit awards, scholarships, state aid, and "self-help aid," which can include potential loans and work-study programs. Calculators that give families a breakdown of what went into the estimates may be easier to understand, but that's not necessitated by the federal mandate.
[Find out 10 more key details about these calculators.]
It's also very important to keep in mind that your net price calculation, no matter the inputs, is only an estimate of what you'll pay if you enroll at the school. The calculators use aid data that already exists, rather than projections, so your estimate won't accurately correlate to what you might pay years in the future.
Even if you'll be starting school in the next calendar year, your actual cost may be thousands of dollars different than the calculator's estimate, as Mark Kantrowitz, founder of FinAid.org, has noted. If college is still several years away, your actual costs will likely be even more different than your calculation now, as tuition and fees rise each year at most colleges.
Even when you understand the complications and limitations of using the tools, you'll need to find a school's net price calculator before you can use it. U.S. News has located more than 250 net price calculators at top colleges; if you're interested in others, try checking the colleges' financial aid pages or doing site searches on school pages.
As you search, be aware that some schools are using different naming conventions for their net price calculators. Juniata College, for example, markets its net price calculator as a "Personal Cost Estimator;" on Bowling Green State University's site, the tool is called a "Student Financial Aid Estimator."
"We've seen things like 'college cost estimator,' 'financial aid estimator,' 'financial cost estimator,'" says Diane Cheng, a research associate at the nonprofit Institute for College Access and Success. "One of the things we're advising students is: keep your eyes open for those keywords as well, and not just 'net price calculator.'"
No matter the template or naming convention of the calculator you're using, make sure to read the disclaimer, and remember that these are estimates, not total sums or guarantees of either admission or financial aid.
Get more financial aid information at the U.S. News Net Price Calculator center.