College net price calculators might not paint complete picture

“Institutions can game these a little bit to work in their favor, as long as they comply with specific regulations. There’s lots of wiggle room,” said Richard Hesel, an education consultant with Baltimore-based Art & Science Group.

By law, the calculators are supposed to add up a laundry list of college costs—including tuition, fees, books, housing, and food—and then subtract grants and scholarships a student is likely to receive. What’s left is the net price.

That’s just the sort of thing that could have come in handy for Brianna Petersen of Monett, Mo., who will be heading to the University of Missouri-Columbia in the fall. She chose Mizzou from a pool of four schools, with price being one of her biggest concerns.

While it was easy to nail down the basics—tuition, room, and board—she said it was much more difficult to figure out various fees and how much she would get from scholarship and financial aid.

Taking away some of the murkiness was the fact that she has helped her older brother navigate his way to Missouri State University. So she was prepared for some of the sticker shock.

“For kids who don’t have an older sibling in school, it would be a complete slap in the face,” Petersen said.

It’s still unclear, though, whether Petersen would have had an easier time in the era of net price calculators.

A lot of that uncertainty comes from the fact that schools have a great deal of leeway in how they approach the calculators.

Some will choose the simplest approach and use a template provided by the federal government. But most seem unwilling to do so and are building their own, or paying someone else to do it. The simple federal template, they say, doesn’t collect enough data to be accurate.