Students can also ensure they apply to a financial safety school. These are colleges students know they can both get into and afford, without student loans. Having one or two safety schools on the list gives students more choices, Dennison says.
Realistic expectations can also make the decision process easier, says Smith, with College Board.
"The problem is, when they get their decision in the spring, and then they're asked to turn around and decide in three to four weeks if they're going to go there. That is way too late to have a serious conversation about finances," Smith says. "You wouldn't buy a house that way."
Net price calculators aren't perfect, though. Calculators vary from school to school. While some ask for a lot of details, others require just basic financial data. Typically, the more questions asked, the more precise the estimate, says Smith.
Students and parents should avoid using ballpark income and GPA figures to ensure they get an accurate estimate, advises Dennison, from uAspire.
To avoid any missteps or confusion, families should work with a guidance counselor or teacher to fill out the calculator for any schools they are interested in, she says.
Dennison also suggest students take a "consumer approach" by using other tools, such as the Department of Education's FAFSA4caster, comparing net price estimates from multiple colleges and then following-up with each school's financial aid office, says.
"It's not just taking one net price calculator and the result and then walking away," she says. "You never go in and buy the first car you test drive. You usually test drive others, or you go to different dealerships, or you get different reviews. It's not just taking one thing at face value. Exploration is the key."
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.