Kids & Money

Some colleges flunk the price calculator requirement

Here’s a class that should be mandatory for college financial aid officers: College Price Calculators 101.

Over the past year, most colleges and universities — including vocational schools and community colleges — have begun placing federally mandated calculators on their websites that show the cost of attendance. The goal is to give students better estimates of what it might really cost to attend the school, based on their own financial and academic circumstances.

Never mind the often inflated sticker price. The net price should be the number to lock in on because it represents the full cost of attendance after factoring in estimated tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and other costs, along with expected grants and scholarships.

Even though the U.S. Department of Education laid out website guidelines last year for creating and posting the calculators, many schools have done a poor job on the execution, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.

In a recent review of 50 randomly selected college price calculators, the nonprofit organization found that many of these tools were hard to find, difficult to understand and essentially worthless to use.

Though acknowledging that there were some exceptional sites — among them Grinnell College in Iowa and Millikin University in Illinois — researcher and report author Diane Cheng said most calculators were “buried on college websites, had dozens of daunting questions or generated estimates that were confusing, misleading or unnecessarily out-of-date.”

Specifically, the report noted, about 25 percent of the colleges reviewed did not have a link to their calculator on their website’s financial aid page. Three had no net pricing tool at all.

In addition, the number of questions that students had to answer to determine their specific funding needs ranged from eight to about 70. Many of the questions required having detailed financial records in your lap while working through the process. Finally, the report said, “the majority of the calculators did not even tell students how their information would be used.”

The report also addressed what schools could do to make the Web tools more effective. Most of these suggestions seem to be no-brainers:

• Prominently display and promote the net price calculator on the financial aid and cost-of-attending sections of college websites.

• Limit the number of detailed financial and academic questions that are asked to arrive at the “net” figure. An alternative: Allow students to provide estimates or choose from numeric ranges rather than entering precise figures off tax forms and other documents.

• The net price should always be the most prominent figure.

Though early versions of the college cost calculators aren’t perfect, the idea is still good. When you understand the costs of attending a school, you are more likely to make a better decision.

At the very least, making the net price calculator easier to find and simpler to use would be big upgrades.