Even with its flaws, the Net Price Calculator (NPC) offers low-income students a better indication of college affordability than the College Scorecard does. However, sometimes finding a college’s NPC is not easy.
Limited value in using a college’s average net price
Because it uses average net prices as a measure of affordability, the recently introduced College Scorecard may discourage low-income students from applying to high-priced schools. Low-income students do not pay “average” prices. For that matter, high-income students don’t either.
There’s just one problem: no student is average.
Consider a low-income applicant to the University of Pennsylvania, a school with a high sticker price. At Penn, a full-price student pays $59,600 (including tuition, room & board, and other fees) and a low-income student with a full scholarship pays $0. The average net price across these two students is $29,800. (As it happens, Penn’s reported average net price is $20,592.) Just like high sticker prices, high average net price can mislead students from modest circumstances looking for affordable college options. Many colleges – particularly prestigious schools with high sticker prices – are committed to building socioeconomically diverse student bodies. At such schools, students’ individualized net prices can vary significantly depending on their financial circumstances.
NPC figures offer a better measure of affordability.
… Like the College Scorecard, NPCs offer key financial information to students and families prior to application and matriculation. The College Board’s 2012 study revealed that more than half of college-bound seniors from lower-income and middle-income families still rule out colleges on the basis of sticker price, but with the advent of NPCs, students from all backgrounds can identify affordable college options before they decide where to apply.
… Instead of discussing financial aid after students have received acceptance letters in senior spring, counselors can help students build application lists in junior spring that take financial aid into account. With the Scorecard’s average net prices, high schools students are left with yet another one-size-fits-all ranking of affordability; in short, it is not much better than the starting “sticker price.”
For low-income students like Cristina, the College Scorecard misses the mark – sometimes by a big margin. As with sticker prices, these average net prices can indicate to low-income students that they will find neither financial support nor a warm welcome at selective schools.
But NRC calculators are often not user friendly.
A report issued by The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) in October 2012 asserted that “net-price calculators are still not reliably easy for prospective college students and their families to find, use, and compare,” noting (among other issues) that many schools post NPCs on obscure web pages.
Although NPC links are included in both the College Scorecard and the Department of Education’s College Navigator, it turns out that many do not connect to the right location.
A solution: College Abacus will soon have a consolidated set of links to all NPCs for U.S. colleges and universities.
At College Abacus, we are closing the gap between legislation – and its goals – and the actual needs of students, parents, and counselors around the United States. We are taking on the task of aggregating the net price calculators into a single, student-friendly tool. With the help of a grant provided by the Gates Foundation’s College Knowledge Challenge, we expect College Abacus to expand from its current group of 4,000+ schools to include all US colleges and universities by September 2013.
Related: ‘Tips for Using Net Price Calculators’ (Cost of College)