WASHINGTON — College is one of the biggest investments most people make, but it can be hard to estimate in advance just how big.
Congress stepped in a few years ago with a law requiring that colleges and universities offer an online tool to help families get a handle on it. For the past year, schools have had to post net price calculators on their websites for prospective students to determine the full cost of attending, minus scholarships and grants.
By the time a family receives acceptances and financial aid letters in the spring, its too late for do-overs, said Lynn OShaughnessy, the author of a consumer book about college costs, The College Solution. You cant start the process all over again if the schools turned out to be stingy.
But all net price calculators are not created equal, and schools have a lot of flexibility in how they present them. Indeed, an immediate problem is that some schools dont make them very easy to find.
When you do find them, they can vary in complexity. Some calculators can take about 20 minutes to fill out because they require pulling information from tax returns and other family financial records. Others are quick and simple but give only an average estimate that might not match a students real-life situation.
Still, they provide an early, customized estimate, though schools make it clear that students still must apply for financial aid and that what they receive could be different.
The concept is simple: When students plug in their financial information, they receive estimated net prices based on what similar students paid in a previous year.
It takes into consideration the institutions financial aid policies, and gives a more accurate picture of what the out-of-pocket costs are likely to be for a family, said Irene Jasper, director of student lending at Duke University.
Some calculators also ask for grades, class ranks and SAT or ACT test scores to determine whether students are eligible for merit aid, which isnt based on need. The more information, the better the estimate, OShaughnessy said.
Some selective private colleges already had embarked on the idea before it became a website requirement.
But because many now give only average amounts for grant awards, based on income, the net price calculators are a good idea thats been watered down, said Robert Weinerman, a former financial aid officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whos an adviser at College Coach, a private college-admissions consulting firm.
Others said that more complicated versions could be daunting.
I think they have the potential to be tremendously helpful, but two things will determine whether they really are: if people use them, and secondly, if theyre user-friendly, said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a policy research group that focuses on helping low-income and minority students succeed in college.
Part of being user-friendly is being easy to find.
The Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit group that advocates for college affordability, said in a report last month that schools should put the net-price calculators in prominent places on their financial aid or costs pages so that potential applicants and parents who werent aware of the tools might discover them more easily.
Sacramento State University, for example, has a link under resources on its financial aid page.
OShaughnessy called the calculator a boon for parents, who could get more personal estimates of what schools would cost before their children went through the time-consuming, often anxiety-ridden effort of applying.
If the price tag is too high, she said, keep looking.