Calculating the costs of college

November 8, 2019
Graphic featuring a logo of a college in the video embedded on this page

Across the country, high school seniors are narrowing their college choices and working on applications.

When it comes time to make a final decision on where to enroll, many of these students and their families will turn to the Net Price Calculator (NPC) found on the website of every college that accepts any kind of federal aid.

These calculators are intended to help students understand the real cost of attending college to better make an informed choice. Colleges are required to go beyond tuition, and include other expenses like the cost of books and the cost of living. After entering information about themselves, the calculators are supposed to provide students with a personalized estimate for how much they would have to pay.

But can you trust Net Price Calculators?

Colleges are required to give families personalized estimates for the real cost of attendance. Watch this video to learn if you should trust them.

Laura Perna, a Penn GSE expert on college access, recently examined the accuracy of these tools. As Perna’s new video explains, many NPCs are confusing, or worse, misleading.

Here are five questions Perna suggests families ask when navigating a Net Price Calculator:

What does “net price” mean?

Net price is the total cost of attending an institution, minus any grants or scholarships a student receives. A Net Price Calculator should provide complete, up-to-date, and usable information on the total estimated cost of attendance for a particular student at a particular institution.

What specific costs are included in the net price?

The listed cost of attendance should include tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies, transportation, and other personal expenses. Colleges and universities are supposed to estimate these costs as part of the process of determining financial aid awards.

Some schools’ Net Price Calculators present these various costs in ways that can be misleading. When using an NPC, make sure that the net price estimates provided include all costs. A good NPC won’t ask students to estimate their own personal expenditures. How would a high school senior realistically guess how much they might spend on snacks, for example? 

It is also important to check that NPC cost estimates are based on data from the current or previous academic year, which is the legal requirement and offers the most accurate approximation of the real cost of attendance. 

What’s the difference between grants and loans?

Many college applicants do not fully understand the distinction between grants and loans — and many Net Price Calculators fail to make it clear that loans need to be paid back, while grant aid does not.

Loans require repayment to the government or a private lender and are available for both students and parents. They may accrue interest over the course of a student’s enrollment, and, importantly, they are an optional source of financial assistance.

Grants, on the other hand, can come from an institution or the state or federal government. They do not need to be repaid, but they may have some eligibility or maintenance requirements, like a minimum GPA.

Is the cost estimate customized?

Net Price Calculator outputs should reflect a student’s individual circumstances and choices, including citizenship, enrollment status, intended major or degree, and room and board selections.

If an NPC does not ask personalized questions, or if estimated cost outputs seem to rely on assumptions in any of these areas, it will likely have lower accuracy and offer less decision-making value to students and families. Be wary.


Who can I ask for help or clarification?

Students and families have the right to clear and accurate information about the costs of college.

Don’t let a poorly designed NPC deter you. If the calculator or its outputs are hard to understand or appear to be misleading, contact the college’s financial aid office and request more complete and useful information.




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