Report Notes Limitations of 'Net Price' Calculators

June 7, 2011

Net price calculators, which attempt to show students and parents how much they will pay for college after financial aid, are useful tools but suffer from limitations, the federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance wrote in a report issued Monday.

The committee, which advises the Education Department on matters related to financial aid, summarized the conclusions of two panel discussions held in March in its report, "The Bottom Line: Ensuring that Students and Parents Understand the Net Price of College." The report concluded that students and families need to use net price calculators early in a college search, but that the calculators are limited by several factors, including their inability to calculate whether students are likely to receive a merit scholarship. Financial aid award letters need to be standardized so students can better compare institutions, the report's authors wrote. "Financial aid award letters may prove a cautionary tale for net price calculators, unless a consensus about uniformity can be built within the community to avoid confusion and complexity for families," they wrote. But in lieu of additional legislation or regulations, the committee recommended that institutions voluntarily adopt more standardized versions of each tool.

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