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College Net Price Calculators- What You Need to Know

a dad and daughter look at college costs on a laptop computer

If the price of a college degree is freaking you out, here is one of the best things you can do to save yourself a lot of money and grief before applying. Start using net price calculators!

The Background on Net Price & Net Price Calculators

Most of us know college can be expensive, but you might not know that college doesn’t cost the same amount of money for every student. That's because colleges offer different amounts of financial aid assistance to each student. To see how this works, you can look at an actual financial aid award you get from schools upon admission.

This report lists two different prices: a sticker price and a net price. The total yearly cost of a college education is called the sticker price. But the net price is what you will actually pay to attend the school. 

But what if you want to know how much you'll pay for a school—the net price—before being admitted? That's where net price calculators come in. They are helpful for identifying which colleges and universities are right in your price range and which are budget busters. Knowing this will help you make the right decision on where to go to college. 

Before using net price calculators, here are some things to know. 

How Do Net Price Calculators Work?

A school's calculator is designed to generate a personalized estimate of the cost of one year of school at the institution for your family. The tool calculates what gift aid an applicant may be entitled to from these sources:

  • Federal grants
  • State grants
  • Institutional aid

A net price calculator adds up this potential free money and subtracts it from the cost of attendance to obtain the net price. When determining potential awards, a net price calculator relies heavily on the parents' and teenagers' relevant tax returns and their latest investment account statements.

Which Schools Offer a Net Price Calculator?

Are you wondering if colleges are required to have a net price calculator? Federal law requires that colleges and universities that participate in the federal financial aid system (and that’s nearly all of them) offer a net price calculator on their website. These calculators are designed for incoming full-time freshmen. But some offer an additional net price calculator for transfer students.

How Can I Use Net Price Calculators?

Traditionally, students have applied without knowing what their ultimate price would be. Sure, it’s easy enough for families to look up sticker prices, but that is rarely the price they pay.

Faced with a pricing vacuum, families would usually wish for the best possible outcome, after teens submit their applications, parents hope against the hope that their children will be showered with generous award packages.

Before applying to any school, you can avoid making emotionally-compromised decisions by using net price calculators. It takes a few short minutes to enter in essential data points, like your dependency status, family size, household income, assets, and so on. Then you'll see an estimated net price.

How to Identify Accurate Net Price Calculators

The quality of net price calculators can vary significantly. The least reliable ones for many families will rely upon the federal calculator template, which schools can use for free.

Roughly half of the schools use net price calculators that depend upon the federal template. Other colleges and universities created their own calculators in-house or hired outside vendors to build them.

The federally-inspired calculators do not ask about:

  • Parent(s) assets
  • Student’s assets
  • Actual parent(s) income figures
  • Actual child income figures

These simple calculators only ask families to select an income range that can make the resulting net price unreliable. Here is what the income question looks like:

Your Annual Household Income After Taxes

  • Include income earned by yourself and your parent(s)
  • Include income from work, child support, and other sources
  • If your parent is single, separated, or divorced, include the income of the parent with whom you live
  • If the parent with whom you live is remarried, include both your parent's income and his/her spouse's income

The federally inspired calculator also doesn’t ask about the child’s grade point average, test scores, or other academic information. Consequently, the federal calculator doesn’t calculate merit scholarships, which is a major consideration for higher-income families.

In contrast, the most accurate net price calculators require sharing specific figures on tax returns and will ask about relevant assets, including school accounts, taxable accounts, custodial accounts, and savings/checking accounts. Generally, the more questions a net price calculator asks, the more accurate the results are.

Playing Detective Using Net Price Calculators

Savvy parents will turn to calculators to dive deeper into how factors such as home equity and a student’s test scores might impact an award. Let’s take a quick look at these two aid factors:

Home equity impact

Many highly selective private institutions assess home equity in their financial aid formulas, and how they weigh it can vary significantly. The schools that inquire about the equity in an applicant’s primary home use a secondary financial aid form called the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE.

Some PROFILE schools will assess the full value of a family’s home, others will limit it based on the household’s income, and others will ignore it altogether. It’s always a good idea to ask a school how it treats home equity, but not all will share that information.

How a college or university assesses home equity can mean the difference between receiving financial aid and not qualifying at all. To get an idea of how home equity might impact aid, plug the equity figure into the calculator, run it, and then leave it out and run it again.

Test scores impact

A big question that teenagers and their parents struggle with is whether students should retake the SAT and/or ACT. Net price calculators can help with that decision and give you a good idea of how merit aid could help. Use real and hypothetical test score results with the calculator and see if they would impact potential awards.

Playing “what if” games with a net price calculator helps you understand how the financial aid package might change if your income, assets, and the student’s academic performance change.

How to Locate the Calculators

It can be difficult finding net price calculators on websites. A quick way to locate this tool is to Google the school's name and net price calculator. You can also search for a net price calculator at the U.S. Department of Education’s Net Price Calculator Center.

How to Ask About Accuracy 

A calculator's net price is an estimate, not a guarantee. It makes sense to ask how accurate its calculator is. 

The net prices you generate will only be as reliable as the financial and academic data you share with these tools. Be sure to include accurate figures. If you are puzzled by the results, try running the net price calculator again with more accurate figures.

Appily Net Price Calculators

Did you know Appily's college profiles include a college’s net price based on a student’s income bracket? Once you’ve registered for a free account, you’ll be able to see the average net price for students like you for hundreds of colleges that you may be interested in.

Click the button below to get an accurate picture of how much college will cost. 

Create a free Appily account to find, finance, and attend the college that's right for you Get Started Now