Schools must post cost calculators online by Oct. 29.

Prospective students and their parents will soon have a more customized way of estimating and comparing college costs.

Beginning this fall, colleges and universities that enroll first-time, full time students and receive federal financial aid will be required to post a net price calculator on their websites.

The tool is designed to give current or prospective students and parents an early estimate of their financial aid and a more accurate idea of the cost of attendance at a particular school.

The U.S. Department of Education defines net price as the cost of attendance — including tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies and transportation — for full-time, first-time students, minus total need- and merit-based federal, state and institutional grants awarded.

The calculators are a requirement of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which Congress passed in 2008. Schools must post them online by Oct. 29.

What does it cost?

Most college students pay less than the published cost of tuition and fees, or list price, because of grants or other forms of financial aid.

In 2009-10, the average amount of financial aid for a full-time undergraduate student was $11,500, according to the College Board, a nonprofit education organization.

However, students also must consider additional costs such as housing, food, books, supplies and laundry.

The actual cost can be somewhat of a mystery to prospective college students until they receive an acceptance letter and an aid award in the spring.

Financial aid officers said the calculators could help prospective students get a better idea of net cost early on in their search process, which could help them make better informed decisions.

But people could face challenges when using the calculators because the tools are not standardized, according to a recent report by the Institute for College Access and Success.

The report evaluated the success of net price calculators that were posted online by January.

The calculators varied significantly among institutions, which could make it difficult for students and parents to find, use and understand them, the report states.

Caution advised

People should use caution when comparing prices at different schools, said Matt Hamilton, vice president for enrollment and student financial services and registrar at the University of Oklahoma.

He said OU plans to have its calculator available for use by mid-August.

Hamilton said many students and parents don’t fully understand the cost of a college education.

He said the calculator is a tool that can help people plan and budget.

The net cost calculator provides an estimate, not a guarantee, said Susan Prater, director of Student Financial Aid at the University of Central Oklahoma.

She said students and parents should still fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid and contact their school’s financial aid office.

Officials at UCO hope to have their calculator posted online by the end of the summer, Prater said.

Oklahoma State University’s head of its net calculator was not available this week.

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