How Do College Net Price Calculators Work?

Net Price Calculators are important tools to use in the financial aid process. But what exactly are they? And why should you use them? We have the answer.

A big part of the college admission process is determining how much each of your colleges of interest would cost if you chose to attend. And these days, there are tools to make that easy. As part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, all colleges are required to have a Net Price Calculator (NPC) on their websites. A Net Price Calculator is exactly what it sounds like: a way to calculate your school-specific college costs. But what costs does it account for and how does it work? Here’s what you need to know about NPCs.  

What should a Net Price Calculator do?

At a minimum, each college’s NPC should output the following information:

  • Total cost of attendance (i.e., the list price) and a breakdown of its constituent parts such as tuition, room, board, and other expenses
  • Total amount of awarded aid to all students (i.e., grants and scholarships)
  • The net price, which is simply cost of attendance minus total aid awarded

To provide this calculation, the NPC asks a series of questions about a family’s financial status intended to estimate the family’s expected family contribution (EFC). The EFC is determined from the information submitted in the FAFSA and is primarily based on the family’s income, assets, and other relevant factors such as family size, parents’ age, number of family members in college, etc. For many private colleges, a second financial disclosure form called the College Scholarship Services (CSS) Profile is also used to determine EFC. Keep in mind that need-based financial aid is determined based on a family’s EFC and not simply on their income. This complicates the calculation. As long as these minimum requirements are met, colleges have discretion in how they meet this federal requirement. As such, a diverse set of net price calculators have emerged across the collegiate landscape, making it a challenge to easily obtain net price numbers and even harder to compare one college to another.

Related: How to Figure Out Your College Costs

Notable differences in NPCs

Colleges differ in important ways in how they present their NPCs. Some ask a bare minimum of questions and have you select from a range of family incomes. These have the virtue of being simple and brief but at the cost of accuracy, as EFC cannot be precisely determined from just an income range. The estimated aid award they produce may not be correct. Some will ask for complete financial disclosure, essentially mimicking the questions on the FAFSA. These have the virtue of being comprehensive and accurate but are time-consuming, complicated, and financially intrusive. Some ask for little financial input other than your EFC. These have the virtue of being simple and accurate but require you to already know your EFC. If you don't already have that information, you'll need to first go elsewhere to an EFC calculator and then return with an estimate. Some provide your EFC as an output when you're finished so you know the basis for their decision, but others are silent on their determination of EFC. This makes it more difficult to compare one college’s net price to another. Finally, some are very careful to separate loans from aid awards in their output results, but others aren't as clear and can be more confusing in their presentation of the net price.

Related: 6 Questions to Learn How Much College Will Really Cost

As you can see, the financial aid process isn't simple. It's a complex stew of competing forms, methodologies, acronyms, and calculations. However, even with these imperfections, the process is much improved by this federal mandate to have net price calculators. Families have the ability to get more insight into net prices than before the era of NPCs. Again, this process is complex but with a little bit of planning and understanding, families can make well-informed and affordable choices.

Help balance out your college costs by seeking more award money. Find scholarships to apply for today using our Scholarship Search tool!

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