An Early Look at Net-Price Calculators

This fall, every college that receives federal financial aid will have to post a net-price calculator on its Web site to help prospective students estimate what the college would cost them after grant aid.

As the October deadline approaches, conversation about how the calculators should work is heating up. The calculators will be discussed at a hearing to be held Thursday by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, an independent group that advises lawmakers and the U.S. Department of Education.

And the Institute for College Access & Success has weighed in with a new report that examined existing calculators and found “a great deal of variation” in how easy they were to find, use, and understand.

The report, “Adding It All Up: An Early Look at Net Price Calculators,” considers  16 calculators that were already online in January. Because the calculators were up in advance of the deadline, the report notes, “For colleges that appear to have developed  their own calculators (rather than using the federal template or a third-party vendor), it is difficult to tell whether the net price calculators currently posted are already intended to meet the federal requirements.”

The report recommends that the Education Department should encourage colleges to:

  • Make the calculators easy to find on their Web sites.
  • Limit the number of mandatory questions users must answer.
  • Emphasize the “net price” figure (cost of attendance minus grant aid).
  • Explain how work and loans differ from grant aid, if these forms of self-help are described in the calculator’s results.
  • Provide a clear explanation of who can access the information users put into the calculator and how that information is being protected.
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