A Net Disappointment

Review of net price calculators finds that many are hard to find, confusing to use or inconsistent.

October 4, 2012

The requirement that colleges display calculators on their websites to estimate the net price, or the cost after need-based grants (and sometimes other aid), went into effect just over a year ago. In a report released Wednesday, the Institute for College Access and Success, an advocacy group, says that colleges are complying with the regulation unevenly.

Some colleges, especially selective private institutions, initially embraced the calculators as a way to show that they’re more affordable for most families than their often-high sticker prices might imply. Some offered them well before the federal requirement went into effect, using them as ways to collect information on future students or provide an advertisement for the value of the education they provide.

But others, since the mandate went into effect, have provided information that could confuse prospective students. Some calculators highlight a “price after aid” or “out-of-pocket price” that includes loans and differs from the federal definition of net price.

Other colleges make the calculators difficult to find, the group, known as TICAS, said in its report. TICAS studied 50 colleges across all sectors, and found that three of them did not display net price calculators at all. Several others -- nearly a quarter of the sample, the group said -- didn’t link to the calculator on relevant pages on their websites, such as the financial aid office homepage. (And some colleges buried the information, including, in one example, in a PDF file. The group named many colleges it felt did not provide adequate calculators, and also praised a few institutions for providing good examples.)

When asked to prove they were complying with the mandate by providing the Education Department with a link to a page linking to their net price calculator, 16 of the colleges in the TICAS study provided a link that didn’t lead to the correct page, the group said. (Three pages included broken links, and 13 went to a page without a link to the calculator.)

The group also said it found many of the colleges’ calculators too confusing, with some requiring as many as 70 questions, including information about SAT and ACT scores, parents’ adjusted gross income after taxes and other questions that would require looking at a tax return. “Net price calculators  are intended to provide early ballpark estimates and should not be as difficult as financial aid applications to complete,” the report’s authors wrote. Many colleges argue that asking for at least some specific information is essential in order to provide even a rough estimate that is reasonably accurate -- for example, colleges that award aid not based on need often take students’ test scores into account.

The group called on the Education Department to enforce regulations to ensure the calculators are easy to use and compare, and asked colleges to take steps on their own as well.



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