Net price calculators may be good in theory – the online tools give families a picture of which colleges are affordable – but using them can present some challenges.
To give an estimated cost to attend a given school, the tools ask users to input data such as age, parental income and household size. A calculator will then tabulate what the students might pay after potential grants or scholarships are factored in.
[Learn when to use net price calculators.]
While the federal government mandates that all schools have a net price calculator on their websites, some are finding ways to skirt the requirement, says Diane Cheng with The Institute for College Access & Success.
As a result, the online cost calculators can be hard to find, hard to use and hard to understand, but students and families shouldn't let that scare them away, she says.
Here are some of the common challenges students encounter with net price calculators, which schools had to introduce in 2011, and how to overcome them.
1. Locating the tool: The Department of Education urged schools in April to prominently place the tool where students are likely to look for it.
While a school's tuition or financial aid home page seems like a natural fit, many schools' calculators were – and some still are – hard to find. One example is Lincoln College of New England-Hartford, which The Institute for College Access & Success cited in a 2012 study as one of the hardest to find. A link to the private, for-profit school's net price calculator then only appeared in a PDF titled "General Institutional Information."
Not all schools call the tool a "net price calculator," either, which can add to the confusion. Fortunately, there are several ways for students to easily locate the net price calculator for a given school
BigFuture.org allows students to easily find calculators for hundreds of schools that use a calculator created by the College Board. The U.S. News Net Price Calculator Center also has links to net price calculators for more than 300 top-ranked college and universities.
Students can also turn to the Department of Education's Net Price Calculator Center to find a school's calculator, or simply type the school name and "net price calculator" into a browser's search bar.
2. Filling out the calculator: Net price tools vary from school to school. Some follow the basic template provided by the federal government, which asks students to answer nine questions, including marital status, parental income, the number of family members in college and whether they plan to live on campus. Other schools go well beyond the required questions.
The University of Wisconsin is just one school that requires students to enter their expected family contribution, Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, noted via email. Kelchen, a Wisconsin alum, has researched financial aid policies.
The figure is calculated by the federal government using information collected via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The government takes into consideration income, assets, benefits and family size to calculate what students and their parents can reasonably pay toward a year of college.
If students haven't filled out a FAFSA, they often need to go to another site to get an estimate of their expected contribution.
Wisconsin's calculator directs students to an external site that asks them to answer more than two dozen questions. On that list are questions about home equity, whether the student or parent receives "federal means-tested benefits" – a term that encompasses federal programs like Medicaid – as well as cash, checking and savings account balances.
Additional details help provide a more accurate estimate, but can also scare students off.
"There's been a tension from the beginning between asking a lot of questions and making these tools as easy as possible for students to be able to access," says Cheng, with The Institute for College Access & Success.
Schools suggest students gather information such as parents' income and recent tax returns before sitting down to fill out net price calculators. But Kelchen notes that families don't have this information handy outside of tax season.
"Students and their families who sit down and expect an estimated aid package immediately will often be disappointed," Kelchen wrote.
Enlisting the help of a teacher or school counselor can also help ease the process, experts say.
3. Understanding the results: The No. 1 thing students and parents need to understand about net price calculator results is they are only estimates.
"We generally tell people to use them to figure out whether a school is in or out of the ballpark, rather than ruling out colleges based on a difference of $50 or a few hundred dollars," Cheng says.
Net price calculators also only provide estimates for one year. Colleges may front-load the estimate with grants and scholarships only available to freshmen, meaning a student's net price could vary drastically his or her sophomore, junior and senior years.
"Colleges are not required to have standard net price calculators, which can confuse students who wish to apply to multiple colleges," Kelchen adds, noting that schools may differ in the way they display the results.
Some colleges may provide two estimates with their calculators. One is the actual net price – tuition, fees, room and board and expenses, minus grants and scholarships. The other includes estimates for loans and work study, which can make the school appear more affordable, cautions Cheng.
Families should focus only on the net price when comparing schools, she says.
If students have questions about the estimate, experts say they should go directly to the source – the college.
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.