Net Price Calculators

The cost of going to college is more than just tuition: it includes textbooks, transportation, housing, food, and other personal expenses. Long defined by federal law, these combined costs are called the “cost of attendance” (COA). Colleges are required to give the U.S. Department of Education (the Department) estimated COAs for their students every year. These estimates play an important role in determining students’ financial aid eligibility, and in helping students and families understand the full cost they’re likely to face at a particular school. But some estimates greatly understate those costs because of the way the Department collects them.  

Bear with us while we explain the problem and what we learned about its implications.


How Costs are Estimated and Reported

Because students’ costs can vary widely depending on their living situation, colleges often develop three distinct COA estimates: for living on campus, at home (with family), and off campus (without family). Colleges have considerable discretion over how they estimate each type of cost that comprises the COA, but federal law specifies which types to include: some are for all students, such as textbooks and room and board (housing and food), while others, such as childcare or disability services, are applied only to students who need them.[1]

Schools report their COA estimates[2] by type of cost and by living status through the Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) Student Financial Aid (SFA) survey. These figures are used in consumer-facing websites, as well as to calculate the “net price” estimates displayed on tools like the College Scorecard and on many colleges’ Net Price Calculators. (Net price is COA minus grants and scholarships: it’s what students need to cover through savings, earnings, and/or loans.) 

These tools provide students and families with more meaningful cost estimates than typical sticker price listings, but their accuracy is undermined by the fact that they rely on incomplete COA data. This is because the IPEDS SFA survey does not let schools report estimated room and board expenses for students living at home as they do for students living on campus or off campus without family. Why not? It may be that those who designed the IPEDS COA survey questions presumed that schools do not account for any room and board costs in their COA budgets for students living at home, or even that these students don’t incur living costs in the first place. However, for many students, living at home isn’t free; a 2015 survey of low- and moderate-income Wisconsin students found that three in four students living at home purchased food and 39 percent paid rent. Unsurprisingly, then, we have seen that many colleges do recognize that students living at home incur expenses for room and board, and factor them into their COA estimates as federal law allows (and used to require). Wherever this is the case, federal data on college costs and net prices are understated.


Our Analysis

To better understand the scope of the problem and its implications, we selected a random sample of 50 colleges (25 public four-year and 25 public two-year schools) and collected COA data from an alternate source: student aid budgets posted on college web sites or available from financial aid offices. We limited our analysis to schools that reported at least 10 percent of students living at home.[3] For each of these schools we examined whether their COA estimate for students living at home included a room and board allowance, and, if so, how much that allowance was. Our findings confirmed colleges’ widespread acknowledgement that students living at home face significant room and board expenses.

Of the 41 colleges for which we were able to collect alternative COA data to compare with IPEDS,[4] we found:

  • All 41 colleges assume some room and board cost for students living off-campus with family, contrary to assumptions that schools provide no such allowance.
  • Room and board allowances for students living at home range from $1,350 to nearly $8,000 per year. Two-thirds of the colleges (27 out of 41) listed allowances of $3,000 or more.
  • Two of the 41 colleges appear to have reported room and board allowances for students living at home to IPEDS by adding them into the “other expenses” category. While doing so results in more comprehensive federal calculations of costs and net price, this practice runs counter to IPEDS instructions, which state that room and board costs are not to be reported for these students.[5]
  • Thirty-nine of the 41 schools provide room and board allowances that are partially or completely excluded from IPEDS reporting.

         Las Positas College Net Price Calculator*

        *Results for a student living at home with less                            than 30,000 in family income


Implications for Cost and Net Price Estimates

These exclusions have significant impacts on colleges’ cost and net price estimates. For example, Las Positas College – a community college in California – estimates that students living at home have room and board costs of $4,518 in 2013-14. Yet the institution’s net price calculator (NPC) lists an estimated room and board budget of $0, because the school used a federal NPC template that drew on incomplete IPEDS COA data for 2013-14. Had the NPC properly factored in room and board costs, the net price listed for a low-income student living at home would have been $7,407, more than two-and-a-half times the listed net price of $2,889.

How much of an impact it has on college-level figures, or aggregate figures at the state- or national-level, depends on the share of a college’s student body that lives at home. At 24 of the 41 colleges we analyzed, more than half of the students used in the calculation of federal net price by income lived off-campus with family. This means that:

  • Federally collected and widely used COA figures for these colleges are often understated by thousands of dollars, as they don’t reflect the comprehensive COA budgets colleges develop.
  • The net price calculations displayed in consumer tools like the College Scorecard can be substantially understated.
  • Personalized estimates provided by colleges’ own NPCs might be understated if they use the federal NPC template.

The exclusion of these room and board costs in the federal data affect net prices for community colleges more than other types of schools, because community colleges have the greatest share of students captured in the data living at home. However, the problem isn’t limited to public, two-year schools. There are more than 1,000 colleges in other sectors across the country where at least half of students counted in the federal net price data live at home.


The Solution: Collect Room and Board Estimates for All Students

Consumer tools that rely on federal data are designed to provide students and families reliable and comparable college cost estimates – something they cannot do given the way COA data are currently collected in IPEDS. Fortunately, the solution is simple: Expand the IPEDS SFA survey to include room and board estimates for students living at home.


[1] The standard cost categories are tuition & fees, room & board, books & supplies, and other expenses (transportation & miscellaneous personal expenses).

[2] Colleges report COA estimates for first-time, full-time, full-year students. Estimates include standard cost categories that apply to all students, but not specialized cost categories.

[3] Enrollment by living status is reported for first-time, full-time Title IV aid recipients.

[4] At the remaining nine colleges, we could not find COA budgets listed on their websites and did not receive responses to our queries about COA. Our analysis incorporated the latest available cost of attendance budgets through the 2015-16 academic year, and cost of attendance data reported to IPEDS for 2013-14, the latest available survey year for IPEDS SFA net price by income cohorts.

[5] 2015-16 IPEDS survey materials make clear that for students living off-campus (with family), room and board costs are not reported, only other expenses.

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Net price calculators, required on almost all college web sites since October 2011, can help prospective students and families look past often scary "sticker prices" and gain a better understanding of which schools they might be able to afford, before they have to decide where to apply. Unfortunately, our research has found that many of these online tools are difficult to find, use, and compare.

To make net price calculators more useful and accessible for students and families, we strongly support the bipartisan Net Price Calculator Improvement Act (HR 3694), introduced by Reps. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), Darrell Issa (R-CA), and Rubén Hinojosa (D-TX). This legislation builds on existing Department of Education guidance for where the calculators should be located on college web sites, how they incorporate military and veteran benefits, and what results they must provide. Additionally, the bill protects students’ privacy by prohibiting any personally identifiable information from being sold or made available to third parties.

The bill also allows the Department of Education to create a web site that lets students answer one set of questions and obtain net price estimates for multiple colleges at once. This would dramatically simplify the current time-consuming process of finding and filling out a different calculator on each college’s web site. The content and design of that central web site would be reviewed and consumer-tested before going live, to ensure that it meets the needs of students and families. Colleges would still be able to create their own customized net price calculators, as long as they meet the minimum requirements.

By making these tools easier to find, use, and compare, the Net Price Calculator Improvement Act will help students and families make more informed decisions about which colleges to apply to and attend.

For more information about net price calculators, visit our resource page.

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We applaud the Department of Education’s recent improvements to the guidance for college net price calculators, which address several of the issues raised in our report last year. If colleges follow the new guidance, net price calculators will be much easier to find, use, and compare.

The new guidance directs schools to make these tools easier to find in several ways:

  • We found some net price calculators buried deep within school websites. The new guidance strongly urges colleges to post their calculators prominently where students and families are likely to look for information on costs and aid, such as on the Financial Aid, Prospective Students, or Tuition and Fees webpages.
  • Other calculators are hard to find because they are not consistently labeled. The guidance makes clear that these tools must be called “net price calculators” and not other names.
  • The Department also instructs colleges to provide direct links to their net price calculators for use in consumer tools such as College Navigator and the new College Scorecard. Previously, some schools provided links to their home page instead.

The new guidance also aims to make the calculators easier to use and their results easier to compare:

  • We found calculators that made it look like the user’s contact information was required to get a net price estimate. The Department’s guidance clarifies that the calculators cannot require contact information and says those questions should be clearly marked as optional.
  • Some calculators misleadingly used outdated cost information or emphasized the cost after subtracting loans as well as grants and scholarships, which is not the “net price.” The new guidance makes clear that the calculators must use the most recent data available and reinforces the importance of the legally required net price figure, which is the cost after grants and scholarships alone. Only by comparing net price to net price can consumers see meaningful differences in what they might have to save, earn, and/or borrow to pay for college.

Our report identifies several other improvements that would make net price calculators much more user-friendly, such as making the user’s “net price” estimate the most prominent figure on the page, limiting the number of detailed questions (especially those that are required), and making it clear which questions are really required.  But the new guidance – if followed – is an important step toward helping prospective college students and their families look beyond intimidating “sticker prices” and start figuring out which schools they might be able to afford.

To view the Department’s updated guidance on net price calculators, visit the Net Price Calculator Information Center and view the recent Dear Colleague Letter. For more information about net price calculators, visit our resource page.

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Since October 29, 2011, almost all U.S. colleges and universities are required to have “net price calculators” on their websites.  These new online tools can make it much easier for prospective students and their families to look past often scary "sticker prices" and start figuring out which colleges they might be able to afford. Armed with early, individualized estimates of what specific colleges would cost after grants and scholarships, students can discover that their dream school may be more (or less) affordable than they thought - before they have to decide where to apply.

To help spread the word about these new online tools, the Department of Education has launched a College Net Price Calculator Student Video Challenge. High school and college students are invited to produce and submit short videos about why net price calculators are a valuable resource during the college selection process. Submit your entry by January 31 for a chance to win one of three $1,500 cash prizes!

To find out more about net price calculators, visit our new net price calculator resource page, with links to our publications as well as resources from the Department of Education.

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Updated March 19, 2012 Since October 29, 2011, almost all U.S. colleges and universities are required to have “net price calculators” on their websites.  These calculators can make it much easier to start figuring out which colleges you might be able to afford.  They provide early, individualized estimates of what a specific college will cost after grants and scholarships: the net price is what you might have to earn, save, or borrow to go to that school.  These new tools can help you move beyond often scary “sticker prices” and discover that your dream school may be more (or less) affordable than you thought - before you have to decide where to apply. Here’s how you can make the most of net price calculators: Finding them on the college website (they won’t always be in the same place)
  • Some calculators are easier to find than others.  A few are posted on the college’s homepage, but most are in the Financial Aid section, which is sometimes under Admissions. Otherwise, try looking in Consumer Information or Disclosures, or search for the calculator within the site or by using an outside search engine like Google.
  • It’s not always called a “net price calculator,” so also keep an eye out for the keywords “cost,” “estimator,” and “financial aid.”
  • The Department of Education has posted net price calculator URLs, as provided by colleges, on its College Navigator tool (http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator) under “Net Price,” as well as on its resource page.
Answering the questions
  • Be prepared to encounter all kinds of calculators, from the simple (as few as 10 questions) to the complex (50 or more).  Some calculators ask questions that require you to dig up detailed financial information from your (or your parents’) tax returns, earnings statements, and bank statements.  If you don’t have that information handy, answer as best you can or try to skip the question.
  • Colleges cannot require you to provide your contact information. If you aren’t comfortable giving them your name, email address, or other information, you don’t have to.
Interpreting the results
  • The most important number on the page is the “net price” – the full cost of attendance minus grants and scholarships.  Make sure you focus on that dollar figure when interpreting calculator results and comparing colleges.  Some colleges also subtract their expectations of how much you’ll earn and borrow to get a smaller cost figure, but it won’t be called “net price.”

  Remember that grants and scholarships don’t need to be repaid,     while work expectations must be earned and loans repaid with       interest. That’s why work-study and loans are called “self-           help.” You don’t want to accidentally compare one school’s net     price with another school’s figure that includes loans and work-     study.

  • Be wary of estimates that include unrealistic amounts of self-help.  We have found calculators that subtract $20,000 or $30,000 worth of expected loans to get to what might be called a “final” or “out of pocket” cost figure of zero.  This can make colleges look more affordable than they really are.  It may look like you will have no out-of-pocket costs, but the costs are just delayed.
  • The results are only estimates and colleges can calculate them differently, so use them to make ballpark comparisons between colleges.  Don’t draw conclusions based on differences of several dollars or even several hundreds of dollars – talk to the schools’ financial aid offices to find out more.
  • The estimates are only for your first year of college and apply to a particular academic year (e.g., 2011-12). If you expect to enter college at a later date, know that the college’s costs and financial aid policies may change.
  • Not all grants and scholarships are available for all years of college.  You can contact the college’s financial aid office (or try searching its website) to find out whether you can expect the same amount of grant assistance after your first year.
  • As all net price calculators are required to tell you, the estimates are not final or binding financial aid awards.  To get an actual aid offer, you have to apply to the school for admission and fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid, http://www.fafsa.ed.gov/) to qualify for federal financial aid, and you may have to fill other applications for aid from your state or college. Net price calculators can help you decide whether to take those next steps.
For more information about net price calculators, please visit our Net Price Calculator Publications and Resources Page: http://ticas.org/NPC_resources.vp.html.

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A recent New York Times blog post discusses the potential strengths and weaknesses of net price calculators, which will appear on almost all college websites by October 29. Here’s our take:

Net price calculators can indeed be a “game changer” for prospective college students and their families. Armed with early, individualized, and comparable estimates of college costs (after subtracting grants and scholarships), students will be able to make more informed decisions about college at all stages of the process. Net price calculators can help students look past “sticker price” and discover that their dream school may be more (or less) affordable than they thought – before it is too late and most of their college decisions have already been made.

The blog post focuses a lot of attention on how accurately net price calculators can predict a student’s exact financial aid package, but we think that’s the wrong question. Net price calculators are intended to provide estimates that help students figure out which schools might be within reach, before they decide where to apply. At that early stage of the process, ease of use is more critical than precision.

We have been monitoring net price calculators over the past year and found, as noted in the blog post, that there is a great deal of variation in the way colleges have been designing and posting their calculators. To best serve the needs of prospective students and their families, net price calculators should all:

  • Be easy to find – colleges should prominently post links to their calculators in areas of their websites that prospective students are likely to visit
  • Be easy to use – limit the number of required questions, make it clear which questions are required, and keep the questions simple
  • Present results that are easy to understand and compare – emphasize the “net price figure,” not what’s left after subtracting work-study and loans
  • Protect students’ personal information – make it clear that submitting contact information is optional, protect users’ privacy, and inform them about how owns and has access to their information

For more information about net price calculators, and to find out more about our findings and recommendations, please view our report, “Adding It All Up: An Early Look at Net Price Calculators.”

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