Law Aims to Give More Accurate Tally of College Costs

A federal law kicks in Oct. 29 that requires all college websites to have an online tool called a net price calculator, which is intended to help give students and families a more accurate estimate of real costs. Many universities have already launched them.

"Universities all cost different amounts, so it’s hard to know what the family might be responsible for until much later in the process, " said Nanci Tessier, vice president of enrollment management of the University of Richmond. "The real goal of this, which is a wonderful goal, is to help families with transparency."

The net price calculator allows families to punch in their financial information to see the impact of their personal situation on costs. Some of the options parents can input include residence plans, how many other students the family has in college and any scholarships or grants they’ve acquired.

The 2010 College Board survey reported tuition and fees at private, not-for-profit four-year colleges averaged $27,293, a number which does not include room and meals. The survey showed that full-time students at those schools receive an average of more than $6,000 in grants that don’t have to be repaid.

Some educators hope the calculator will lead to more students considering higher-priced private institutions. "When they find out we have pretty generous scholarships we offer … it’s not out of their reach," said Linda Parker, director of financial aid at Union College in New York.

The calculator, some admissions administrators say, can be a help but doesn’t show precise costs. "This is an estimator," says David Johnson, vice provost at the University of Indiana Office of Enrollment Management.

Some monitoring the calculators have raised concerns. The non-profit Institute for College Access and Success identified problems, including calculators buried "in obscure parts of college websites" or requiring extensive information.


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