Net Price Vs. Out-Of-Pocket

Prospective students wanting to know how much a given college will cost them might end up putting their family income and grades into a net price calculator, meant to provide a personalized idea of about how much they will pay after grants and scholarships.

But on the same results page with that information is often another dollar amount, far lower than the federally defined net price. After loans are taken into account, colleges say, you will actually pay very little — or nothing at all.

The net price calculator started as a federal requirement to make the price of a given college more transparent before students apply. Many families don't actually pay the sticker price that colleges charge, either because they receive need-based aid like the Pell Grant or scholarships and grants based on other factors. But students often didn’t find that out until financial aid award letters arrived, meaning that the sticker price might have already shaped their college searches.

The online calculators ask prospective students a series of questions about their (or their parents’) income and sometimes their grades and test scores, then returns an estimate for what the student will actually pay. Even before the mandate went into effect last October, officials at some colleges embraced the calculators, saying they could be valuable tools for marketing to prospective students.

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