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The Net Price Calculator: An Overlooked College Planning Tool

Can you imagine going to the grocery store and not being able to tell how much a gallon of milk will cost until after the cashier scans it and tells you the price?! Unfortunately, the cost of college is never really clear until close to the end of the shopping process. Students have to apply, be accepted, and wait for their financial aid letter before they know how much it will cost them. No one tool will give your clients an exact cost, but net price calculators can help them get a better idea.

What does “net price” mean?

The net price is the amount a student pays each year after subtracting scholarships and grant aid. Federal loans that have to be paid back are not included in the “net price” figure.

The “net cost” figure does include federal loans that have to paid back. This is affectionately called “self-help” aid. (We’ll come back to that later with an example.)

Knowing the net price allows your clients to start to compare colleges side-by-side. They can use this price as a guide to develop a strong list of potential colleges that would be a good financial fit.

The Calculators

In the interest of transparency and to encourage students to attend college who might be thrown off by the sticker price, the federal government requires every college and university to have a net price calculator on their website. This requirement was included in the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965.

The idea sounds great–a tool to show students that a $50,000 list price college will actually cost them $30,000. However, the federal minimum calculator template does not provide enough detail to give an accurate estimate for most families. Plus, colleges are not required to adhere to a specific calculator formula. Luckily, many colleges have built upon the minimum calculator to create a more useful tool to incorporate things like household size, assets, or student merit in their factoring.

The most helpful calculators ask for financial information in addition to questions that would estimate merit aid, numbers like GPA and ACT/SAT scores. Your client’s student can fill out these calculators anonymously and see what similar students paid at that university.

Where, oh where has the calculator gone?

You would think a useful tool like this would be boldly featured on a college’s website. Unfortunately, your clients will often have to do a bit of searching to find it. If the college has a search bar on their website, type “net price calculator” in the field to find it. Or simply Google “XYZ University net price calculator.” Another option is to visit or and enter their college in the search bar to be taken to the correct page.

Pay attention to the fine print

Most calculators are intended for new undergraduates applying to be full time students for the first time. They also may use an average tuition number if different colleges/majors within the university have different price tags.

Make sure the calculator is using the most recent sticker price as the starting point, and remember this is probably last year’s price. The best a net price calculator can do is provide your clients with an estimate.

Watch out for net price vs. net cost

Although the government only requires “net price” to be provided, some colleges will show “net cost” as well. As we mentioned earlier, net cost will include available student loan figures in the final number. This result can be misleading. Only the net price includes aid you don’t have to pay back.

Let’s do one

How about The Ohio State University’s net price calculator? You’ll see on the very first page lots of disclaimers and details about what exactly you will learn with this calculator. They want to make sure you understand that the numbers are just estimates and that they are not a guarantee of financial aid.

Today’s current page notes that it is estimating the cost for 2018/19. The disclaimers point out that the results depend on the information your clients provide, it assesses merit and need-based aid (both federal and state of Ohio), it does not include current or transfer students, and not all scholarships will be included in the result.

Click “start” to fill it out.

Your clients should note that colleges expect their student to fill this out. Although not exactly practical (your client’s student might not know your federal tax numbers), it is a good task to do together. When they refer to “you,” they are referring to your client’s student. (If they already know their Expected Family Contribution from completing your FAFSA, that will save them a lot of time! Your client can use an EFC calculator to help with this.)

As your client progress through the pages, they will indicate their intended campus, merit information, demographic information, dependent/independent status, and EFC. (If they don’t know their EFC, they will be asked financial questions in order to estimate this number.)

Finally, they are ready to present your client’s net price. Note, they ask for name and email contact information. These items are optional. Your clients do not need to provide them.

The results will provide direct (tuition and room/board) as well as indirect (books, fees, miscellaneous expenses) figures as well as any merit aid.

These numbers are estimates. Ohio State provides the “self-help” or net cost numbers. The $5,500 available federal student loan “aid” will need to be paid back.

User beware, but use it anyway

Although your client needs to keep several details in mind, net price calculators can be a great starting point to begin to get a clearer picture of a college. Could that $40,000 sticker price actually be a better fit when your client’s student’s personal details are factored in? That college may be worth checking out.

Originally published 5/2018
Updated 3/2020

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