Why College Net Price Calculators Aren’t Enough...

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A few years ago, I got my father a headlamp for Christmas. He lives in a rural area, and often needs a hands-free way to see at night, whether he’s walking the dog, focusing in on a home repair, or gathering firewood.


Now, my father liked the headlamp very much, but did he get rid of his other flashlights, or disassemble the motion detector lights around his property once he got it? Absolutely not. The headlamp became just another tool to help him navigate the wilds of his backyard and beyond--and to see in the dark.


It’s not so different with college net price calculators. When college net price calculators were added to university websites, guidance counselors cheered. Here were tools to help students and parents determine the actual cost of a given college, and provide insight to what most students typically pay for a degree at a particular school. No more guesswork--There would now be greater transparency when it came to college pricing.


Of course, like anything with higher education, it wasn’t so simple. College net price calculators certainly shed more light on the true cost of college, but like any tool, they’re not a one-size-fits-all resource. In fact, they’re most effective when used in tandem with other college research strategies to determine best financial fit.


The Pros of College Net Price Calculators


The Cons of College Net Price Calculators

  • Colleges can be conservative in how they model costs, so the figures presented in the calculators may not be as advantageous as the actual net price. For example, net price calculators often only include need-based aid, not merit-based aid such as grants, scholarships, and tuition discounts—all major contributors to reducing the cost of college.
  • Many net price calculators are built off an individual formula, and may skimp on or omit specifics. For example, net price calculators don’t factor in the results of follow-up conversations with the financial aid office—that you’re likely to get more aid if you negotiate for it.
  • There is no standardization across different colleges’ net price calculators, so your comparisons may be apples-to-oranges based on respective school criteria and the financial/academic information you’re asked to submit.
  • Net price calculators reflect a moment in time (typically the previous academic year), and don’t reflect current market conditions, student enrollments, and recent endowment levels.
  • College net price calculators can be buried within a college’s website, and may be hard to track down. (Luckily, the U.S. Department of Education has aggregated many net price calculators on its own site.)


So, when doing your own college research, what does this mean for you? In short, it’s further encouragement to treat the college research as a consumer making a significant purchase. Use college net price calculators as just one part of the research process, not the first and only part. You’ll want to approach the calculators with a critical eye, to see how much information they request from you — and how personalized the results are. Once you’ve determined reliability and quality by college, gather those initial estimates and supplement your findings with what current and former students at a given college have actually received in financial aid. Compare this with real-time market-based data to ensure you’re getting the best financial fit and an affordable four-year degree. (You can use Edmit’s cost-comparison tool to get this supplementary data, or reach out directly to the financial aid offices at the schools that interest you.)


Here at Edmit, we’re trying to present a full toolbox to students, parents, and guidance counselors — the headlamp, flashlight, motion-sensor lights, and beyond (floodlights, overhead lamps, and solar lamps, to continue the metaphor). So use those net price calculators as your first step — then go deeper, get informed, speak to financial aid counselors, and be willing to negotiate. When it comes to college pricing, there’s no need to fumble around in the dark. 

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