Net Price Calculators: One more tool for the College Admission Process

By: Donna Kendall, Executive Director of Enrollment Management and Financial Assistance at Bentley University

If you are starting to look at colleges and are shocked (and discouraged) at some of the prices, there is a relatively new tool that can put some of those large price tags into perspective. It’s been over two years since colleges with first-time, first-year students were required to provide a Net Price Calculator (NPC) on their websites so that prospective students can get an estimate of what financial aid they could expect at each school. This mandate was part of the federal government’s quest to provide more transparency in the college search process and show families that a college’s sticker price, in many instances, is not the price they will be expected to pay.

However, I still find that many families I talk with have either never heard of Net Price Calculators or have never used one. For parents of high school sophomores and juniors, NPCs can be a very useful tool as your child starts to compile a list of colleges to investigate further. Don’t eliminate a school solely on the basis of the sticker price. With financial aid, a high-cost school may be comparable in net cost to a lower-priced school.

What Will a Net Price Calculator Tell You?

The net price equation is a very simple one.

Net Price EquationThe results you receive from a Net Price Calculator must contain specific information:

  • Cost of attendance (COA) components, including tuition and fees, room and board, an estimate of books and supplies, and an estimate of other expenses

  • Estimated grant/scholarship aid

  • Net cost/price once aid has been subtracted from the total cost

Your net price is only an estimate. You still need to apply for financial aid by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) in your child’s senior year, and any additional financial aid forms required by the school for consideration of college-based funds. But, even an estimate can help guide you as you evaluate which schools to seriously consider.

It’s helpful to create a simple spreadsheet like the one below to track NPC results from various schools. Since each school must tell you their COA components, you can easily compare “apples to apples.”   As you can see in this example, the highest cost school actually has the lowest net price.

college cost comparison

How Accurate Are Net Price Calculators?

Your results are only as good as the information you enter (the garbage in, garbage out principle). Make sure you keep a record of the information you enter into the NPC and the results that you receive. If the NPC financial aid estimate does not match the award you eventually receive, you’ll probably want to discuss the difference with the school. You’ll need a record of what you entered to have that conversation.

Schools had some flexibility in how they implemented the NPC requirement. Many schools use the federal NPC template, which is quick and easy to use, but the results are not as personalized. The estimated aid is based on the average aid received by students with family income similar to yours. The federal NPC is truly a ballpark estimate — in a sometimes very large ballpark.

Some schools use a more customized NPC. These calculators are generally not as easy to use. There are a lot more questions to answer, and your child will most likely not be able to complete these customized NPCs without your help (or access to your tax return—yikes!). However, the result you receive will be based on your income and asset information and is more likely to resemble your aid package.

Each NPC has a helpful introductory page, which will give you information about using the calculator and what to do if you have special circumstances that would make it difficult for the NPC to predict your net cost. The introductory page may also indicate if the NPC estimates only need-based aid, or if it includes an estimate of eligibility for academic scholarships as well.

Where Can You Find a School’s Net Price Calculator?

The regulations are not strict as to where on their website a school must display their Net Price Calculator. A good place to start looking is the college’s undergraduate admission or financial aid home page. Or, you can go to for links to every school’s NPC — no guess work involved. Once you find the school through the search feature, select the option for “Net Price.” The web link to the school’s NPC is on that page.

college navigator

Final Thoughts

Regulations prevent schools from requiring NPC users to register or submit any personally identifiable information. There should always be an option for you to enter your information anonymously. Sometimes you have to look closely to find the link that allows you to by-pass questions asking for biographical facts.

There are so many helpful tools and calculators available today to help families navigate the college search process. NPCs are one tool that you will want to use often. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if a school is affordable for your family. But, don’t eliminate a school from initial consideration based on NPC results if your child really wants to attend that school. Remember, the results are only an estimate. The actual financial aid package may indeed make the cost affordable.

donna kendall

Donna Kendall first stepped into a financial aid office in 1984 and has never left! She has worked at Bentley University in Waltham, MA for the last 18 years and currently holds the title of Executive Director of Enrollment Management and Financial Assistance. Donna is also the current president of the Massachusetts Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (MASFAA) and is passionate about unraveling the financial aid knot for families. During the fall months, she volunteers as a MEFA College Financing Seminar presenter. However, her most important higher education credential is that she survived the college admission process twice with her two daughters, who are now gainfully employed and living on their own. She lives north of Boston with her husband and her pet boxer, Mocha.