What Is A “Net Price Calculator” for College?

If you sit through a financial aid workshop or meeting with a college counselor, you’re bound to hear a lot of intimidating terms. Even other parents at back-to-school night nonchalantly toss around insider information. It’s easy to panic when you don’t know your COA from your FAFSA, or where to get a net price calculator. Office Depot?

The Net Price Calculator (NPC) is a handy tool for estimating how much it will cost to attend a particular institution. According to the Department of Education, the net price of college “is the amount that a student pays to attend an institution in a single academic year after subtracting scholarships and grants”—as opposed to the Cost Of Attendance (aha! The COA), which is the full cost of tuition, books, and room and board before any financial aid or scholarships are applied.

Colleges provide net price calculators on their websites; they can be accessed by searching the financial aid section of a college’s site, or you can simply google the name of the college along with “net price calculator”, i.e. Harvard net price calculator.

To make the process easy, be prepared before trying the calculator.

  • Dig up tax returns and W2s for the previous year
  • Include academic information
  • Extra-curricular information helps too

Enter the most accurate numbers possible in order to get a realistic estimate. Use the ? icons in the calculator (they make it simple by directing you to the exact line in your tax form to find the numbers you need). But remember, it is only an estimate. Usually students and parents try colleges’ net price calculators early in the college search process to get a rough idea of how much financial aid and scholarships a student might receive from schools they are interested in.

To get real numbers, you’ll have to wait until you have submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the student accepts a school’s admission offer. When students apply for aid using the FAFSA, the government uses their family’s financial information to calculate the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. It’s important to note that the Net Price Calculator is not an EFC calculator. The NPC is a college price estimating tool for students, while the EFC is the actual number the federal government uses to award financial aid.

Just want to see some numbers to get a general idea before using the calculator? Go to the National Center for Educational Statistics’ College Navigator. Enter information on the colleges you’re interested in and select “Net Price” to see the average cost. For example, the cost of attendance at Ohio State University in 2016 was $25,847. Families with incomes in the range of $48,001-75,000 had an average net price of $15,463 at Ohio State in 2016.

Armed with information from the Net Price Calculator and a keep-the-end-in-mind attitude, students and their parents can make thoughtful decisions about college financial aid and the best colleges for students without incurring a lifetime of college debt.

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