Calculating the cost of college

Law requires schools to offer calculators on their websites

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 8, 2012 

  • Calculating the costs at Triangle schools Finding the net price calculators on the websites of the Triangle’s three major universities takes a good eye and several clicks – and in the case of N.C. State University, some luck. To save you that trouble, here are direct URLs for each: Duke University: N.C. State University: UNC-Chapel Hill: For other schools, simply add a participating university’s name after the word “app.” You can find a list of participating universities at Each calculator lets you enter as a guest. You then click through several screens, filling out personal information about your child and your own finances, taxes and investments. NCSU asks for the least information. Duke and UNC-CH are almost identical, but Duke adds a few questions, such as estimates of how much you’ll spend on medical bills. All three sites direct you to complete a free application for federal student aid. None asks for grades, class ranking or test scores.

— 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, it’s too late for do-overs,” said Lynn O’Shaughnessy, the author of a consumer book about college costs, “The College Solution.” “You can’t 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 don’t 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 student’s 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 institution’s 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 isn’t based on need. The more information, the better the estimate, O’Shaughnessy 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 that’s been watered down,” said Robert Weinerman, a former financial aid officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who’s 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 they’re 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 weren’t aware of the tools might discover them more easily.

Sacramento State University, for example, has a link under “resources” on its financial aid page.

O’Shaughnessy 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.”

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