It used to be that the only way you could figure out how much financial aid you’d get was by being accepted to a college and submitting the FAFSA.
However, now colleges have Net Price Calculators (NPC) and you can get an estimate of how much money you’ll get before you even submit an application fee.
Every school that participates in the Federal Financial Aid System – which is basically all of them – must post a net price calculator.
NPCs are not foolproof, and they are not a guarantee or an application for aid. They’re meant to give you a rough idea of cost and help you compare schools to each other, but even with their limitations, they represent a much-needed information opportunity for families trying to figure out how much it will really cost for their student to attend a specific school.
Benefits of Net Price Calculators
Each college needs its own NPC because they have their own formula.
So, let’s figure that there are approximately 1,500 four-year colleges with 500 or more full-time undergraduates, and each of these 1,500 plus colleges sets its own policy for awarding their own institutional grants.
(We’re not talking about federal loans or Pell Grants here but rather free money from the college in the form of scholarships and grants.)
Does one have to go to each school individually and re-enter your financial information over and over again?
And if so, that is A LOT of work!
The bad news is that you do have to check with each individual school.
The good news, however, is that it is relatively simple to find each school’s NPC.
Just go their website. If it’s not obvious on their website, Google the name of the college and “net price calculator.”
Limitations of Net Price Calculators
There are several problems with Net Price Calculators.
A major issue is that there isn’t a standard format for displaying the results.
They do have to provide the users with an actual average net price, but that does not always include loans or work-study.
Many also list another number that is some variation of total net cost.
This is where they’ll include things like student loans, private loans, or Parent PLUS loans.
By including these, they will list the total net cost as being “zero” to the student.
Some will also make this number more prominent than the average net cost result.
Another problem is the quality of the NPC’s data. Many colleges use the free template provided by the federal government.
This NPC doesn’t ask for as much detailed financial information as the others.
Income is based on general categories, with the highest topping out at $110,000 or more.
That means that families at the higher income ranges aren’t likely to get an accurate estimate of their potential financial aid.
Furthermore, not all NPCs, including the federal calculator, estimate potential merit scholarships based on academic qualifications.
As you start using NPCs, you’ll find some ask for test scores, GPA, or class rank and include estimated academic awards.
These can be very useful in helping to decide whether or not to retake the SAT or ACT. By just changing your test scores, you can find out how much your award will change.
Remember, NPCs are estimates, not promises. But they provide you with a legitimate starting point in figuring out how much you’ll pay for college.
And if the estimate doesn’t seem to accurately reflect your financial situation, you know that you’ll need to contact the college to find out more.
Good or bad, don’t you think it’s better to know whether or not they consider your specific circumstances before you apply?
Finding Generous Schools
When considering which schools might be more generous with their merit aid money, check our our College Insights tool. It will provide you with a list of schools that will offer your student more money based on their stats and preferences.
Use College Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.
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