Burned by college net price calculator estimates

by Grace

Price calculators were supposed to make estimating the cost of going to college easier. But some families are feeling burned by them….

Net price calculators (NPC) became a mandated tool on all college websites last fall, but the Wall Street Journal reports that some estimates have turned out to be inconsistent with the actual costs families learned about this spring.  There can be several reasons for the inaccuracies, including errors in entering data, changed personal circumstances, outdated college costs, and flawed calculator design.

Families should understand that the NPC estimates can be a useful first step in comparing affordability among various institutions, but should not be relied upon for total accuracy.  It’s important to review the final report carefully for questionable results, such as the example where an NPC produced an “estimated out-of-pocket cost” of $0 while also including loans amounting to more than $20,000.  Contact the college when you discover questionable numbers like this.

Some tips on interpreting NPC resuls from The Institute for College Access & Success:

  • Be wary of estimates that include unrealistic amounts of self-help. We have found calculators that subtract $20,000 or $30,000 worth of expected loans to get to what might be called a “final” or “out of pocket” cost figure of zero. This can make colleges look more affordable than they really are. It may look like you will have no out-of-pocket costs, but the costs are just delayed.
  • The results are only estimates and colleges can calculate them differently, so use them to make ballpark comparisons between colleges. Don’t draw conclusions based on differences of several dollars or even several hundreds of dollars – talk to the schools’ financial aid offices to find out more.
  • The estimates are only for your first year of college and apply to a particular academic year (e.g., 2011-12). If you expect to enter college at a later date, know that the college’s costs and financial aid policies may change.
  • Not all grants and scholarships are available for all years of college. You can contact the college’s financial aid office (or try searching its website) to find out whether you can expect the same amount of grant assistance after your first year.
  • As all net price calculators are required to tell you, the estimates are not final or binding financial aid awards. To get an actual aid offer, you have to apply to the school for admission and fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid, http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/) to qualify for federal financial aid, and you may have to fill other applications for aid from your state or college. Net price calculators can help you decide whether to take those next steps.
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2 Comments to “Burned by college net price calculator estimates”

  1. “We have found calculators that subtract $20,000 or $30,000 worth of expected loans to get to what might be called a “final” or “out of pocket” cost figure of zero. This can make colleges look more affordable than they really are. It may look like you will have no out-of-pocket costs, but the costs are just delayed.”

    That’s pretty shady.

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  2. I don’t know whether to put more blame on the schools’ “shady” reports or on the families’ interpretation of them. Even when it’s made clear that loans are, well, loans that will have to be repaid, many families fail to grasp the impact of graduating with $50,000-$100,000 or more in loans.

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