College net price calculators might not paint complete picture

“If you look at the template, it just doesn’t seem to be detailed enough to suit our needs,” said Chris Hall, vice president for admissions and financial aid at McKendree University in Lebanon, Ill.

McKendree is among many schools working with outside vendors to develop custom net price calculators that will collect a host of financial and academic information. They want to identify students who might be eligible for extra financial aid or scholarships—including those based on class standing, grade point average, and college admission test scores.

McKendree, for example, offers a $1,000 legacy scholarship to students who have siblings, parents, or grandparents who went to the school. Southeast Missouri State wants to identify students who will qualify for its generous merit-based Governor’s Scholarship covering room and board and up to 30 hours of tuition. And the University of Missouri-St. Louis wants to reflect the lower tuition paid by students who live in 22 nearby Illinois counties.

In some ways, the net price calculators threaten to change the way students evaluate prospective schools. The way it works now, students don’t get a firm idea of cost until they get their financial aid award letters in the spring. Essentially, they learn the price only after deciding to buy.

Admissions and financial aid officials say they’re happy to see students get better information earlier. But there’s a downside, particularly in the case of students who might be eligible for more aid or lower tuition than can be reflected in a calculator.

“We may look a lot more expensive than we really are,” said Alan Byrd, admissions director at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

What’s missing is the direct student-to-school contact that allows an institution a chance to take a closer look at individual needs.

At Washington University, for example, financial aid award letters are sent out in March, giving students a month to work with the school’s counselors. It’s not uncommon for aid packages to be adjusted once special circumstances—a parent losing a job, for example—are taken into account, said Bill Witbrodt, director of Student Financial Services.