America in 1959 would have been unrecognizable to a time-traveler from 1886—city skylines illuminating the night sky, cars zipping along highways, jumbo jets roaring above at 30,000 feet—just about every aspect of daily life had radically changed. Yet, amazingly, one thing would have been startlingly familiar, as it remained constant during that 73 year span—the five cent bottle of Coca Cola.

If only the world of college tuition prices had a fraction of that steady predictability. Even fully accounting for inflation, college costs have tripled since 1979, doubled since the late 80s, and price increases continue to outpace inflation every single year. For all of the exorbitant costs, one would hope that colleges and universities were at least transparent and straightforward with their pricing. Unfortunately, tuition pricing has more in common with your perpetually-rising cable bill or the mysterious fees that suddenly surface when buying a car.

Estimating college costs merely by comparing sticker prices is not often a fruitful endeavor and without a good faith estimate of the impact of a family’s financial standing and merit aid on the final bill, many applicants remain completely in the dark. To address the problem of tuition obfuscation, the feds passed a bill in 2011 that requires institutions of higher education to post a “net price calculator” on their university website. College Transitions is pleased to offer you advice on how to take advantage of this sometimes helpful tool.

What does a net price calculator do?

Just like the FAFSA or CSS Profile, an institution’s net price calculator can use your previous year’s tax returns, and information about your assets, to give you an estimated cost of attendance. While there is nothing official about this estimate, it can be a very helpful tool for applicants early in the application process to at least begin to get a ballpark figure of what a given school costs.

How do I find a school’s Net Price Calculator?

Simple—google the name of your school and net price calculator. The Department of Education also offers this convenient website where you can quickly search for the net price calculator of any institution.

How long does it take?

The quality of a net price calculator can, in part, be measured by how long it takes you to fill out. The rule of thumb for the time it should take to plug in your data is 15-20 minutes. Have documents related to family income, assets, and investments by your side—if a NPC is going to tell you anything accurate, this information will all be required.

For example, NYU’s net price calculator can be completed in less than two minutes. The only information required is household income and a handful of demographic check boxes. This is a sign that this particular NPC is going to be of limited help. On the other hand, Duke University’s net price calculator is far more involved, asking you to delineate each parent’s taxable income, deductions, retirement plan contributions, etc. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s NPC is even lengthier, requiring a full page of academic history, which is an even better indicator of usefulness.

Merit-based considerations?

Net price calculators, like RPI’s, allow users to enter basic academic information that will give parents an idea of what they might expect in the form of merit-based scholarships. Sadly, the majority of NPCs do not offer this feature, instead only providing information about federal aid eligibility, something that will be of little use to middle class families.

If your prospective institution does indeed offer this feature, we advise that you experiment in this section by altering certain variables to see how will affect your net tuition price. For example, running the numbers for both a 1290 and a 1350 SAT score may give you two very different estimates. The 1290 you have in the bag as you enter your senior year might be more than enough to ensure acceptance at your top-choice school, therefore you see little reason to retake the SAT another time. Yet if the NPC on your school’s site tells you that an extra 60 points will cut $5,000 off your tuition, it’s probably time to register on the College Board site and bury your nose back in those study guides.

Visit the net price calculator before applying

If there is no conceivable way that you/your family will be able to pay for a particular college based on your net price calculation, consider scrapping that application entirely. There is no reason to waste money and precious time completing an application for a school that, even in the best-case merit aid scenario, is well beyond your financial reach. The worst strategy you can employ is to base your entire set of applications on pure financial guesswork. Netting a handful of acceptance letters from schools that you cannot afford without taking out massive student loans is not an enviable position to end up in. Make sure you pick at least one financial safety school which a quality NPC can help you select with confidence.

Key Takeaways

  • College costs are always on the rise and are far from transparent.
  • A net price calculator can give you a rough estimate of what tuition will actually cost.
  • Many NPCs are not good enough to provide anything beyond federal aid estimates.
  • Quality NPCs will take you more than a few minutes to fill out.
  • Quality NPCs will require academic as well as financial information.
  • Use NPCs to rule out schools that are too expensive and to select colleges that can serve as financial safety schools.
Dave Bergman
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).