WASHINGTON, D.C. — College is one of the biggest investments most people make, but it can be hard to estimate in advance just how big.
Congress stepped in a few years ago with a law requiring that colleges and universities offer an online tool to help families get a handle on it. For the past year, schools have had to post “net price calculators” on their websites for prospective students to determine the full cost of attending, minus scholarships and grants.
“By the time a family receives acceptances and financial aid letters in the spring, it’s too late for do-overs,” said Lynn O’Shaughnessy, the author of a consumer book about college costs, “The College Solution.”
“You can’t start the process all over again if the schools turned out to be stingy.”
But all net price calculators are not created equal, and schools have a lot of flexibility in how they present them. Indeed, an immediate problem is that some schools don’t make them very easy to find.
When you do find them, they can vary in complexity. Some calculators can take about 20 minutes to fill out because they require pulling information from tax returns and other family financial records. Others are quick and simple but give only an average estimate that might not match with a student’s real-life situation.
Still, they provide an early, customized estimate, though schools make it clear that students still must apply for financial aid and that what they receive could be different.
The concept is simple: When students plug in their financial information, they receive estimated net prices based on what similar students paid in a previous year.
“It takes into consideration the institution’s financial aid policies, and gives a more accurate picture of what the out-of-pocket costs are likely to be for a family,” said Irene Jasper, the director of student lending at Duke University.
Some calculators also ask for grades, class ranks and SAT or ACT test scores to determine whether students are eligible for merit aid, which isn’t based on need. The more information, the better the estimate, O’Shaughnessy said.
Some selective private colleges already had embarked on the idea before it became a website requirement.
But because many now give only average amounts for grant awards, based on income, the net price calculators are “a good idea that’s been watered down,” said Robert Weinerman, a former financial aid officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who’s an adviser at College Coach, a private college-admissions consulting firm.
Others said that more complicated versions could be daunting.
“I think they have the potential to be tremendously helpful, but two things will determine whether they really are: if people use them, and secondly, if they’re user-friendly,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a policy research group that focuses on helping low-income and minority students succeed in college.
Part of being user-friendly is being easy to find.
The Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit group that advocates for college affordability, said in a report last month that schools should put the net-price calculators in prominent places on their financial aid or costs pages so that potential applicants — and parents — who weren’t aware of the tools might discover them more easily.
Sacramento State University, for example, has a link under “resources” on its financial aid page. Tacoma Community College in Washington put the calculator on its student consumer information page, reached by clicking the “About TCC” tab on the home page.
Kim Matison in the Tacoma Community College financial aid office said her office had been talking about making the calculator more visible. The school was among 50 randomly selected two- and four-year colleges in a study of net price calculators by the Institute for College Access and Success. It found that about a quarter had no links on their costs or financial aid pages and three had no calculators at all.
O’Shaughnessy said the calculator was a boon for parents, who could get more personal estimates of what schools would cost them before their children went through the time-consuming — and often anxiety-ridden — effort of applying.
“If the price tag is too high,” she said, “keep looking.”