Calculating Costs and Benefits

New federal requirements have lately been likely to draw groans and complaints from college and university officials who feel deluged by ever-changing rules and regulations. But one change taking effect later this year has found many colleges ready, even eager, to comply.

The requirement that colleges display "net price calculators," which prospective students can use to estimate how much they will have to pay after federal or institutional grants, has become the rare mandate that many colleges have embraced — and that a small private industry has sprung up to help fulfill.

The calculators are seen as a boon for admissions officers, who want to use them to reach prospective students, and for financial aid advisers, who see them as a starting point; they are even seen as a way to reshape institutional aid and pricing policies by making practices more transparent. (Some admissions experts are more skeptical.)

Whether they will accomplish any of that, or just become another tool for students already savvy about the admissions and financial aid process, is not yet clear. "We are very much in the early stages here in terms of really understanding how best to use this," said Peter S. Bryant, a senior vice president with Noel-Levitz, a consulting firm offering its own version of the net price calculator.

Still, with more than a month left before the Oct. 29 deadline, the calculators — often relabeled "financial aid estimators" — are already prominently displayed on websites for many colleges and universities, whose officials say they want to have them ready when this year’s high school juniors and seniors begin their college search as they return to school.

"Generally, colleges are not very enthused when new federal mandates come down," said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "I can’t think of another that has had the kind of uptake that this one has."

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