College net price calculators might not paint complete picture


Those are the sorts of things that might not be reflected in the numbers spit out by a calculator.

“Our challenge is to present the net price calculator in a way that lets folks know we haven’t taken those things into consideration,” Witbrodt said.

Creating even more hand-wringing is the likelihood that some schools will end up using the net price calculators as marketing tools—some less honestly than others.

Federal rules offer a short list of things that must be included on every calculator, with net price being the most important. Outside of that, schools are relatively free to do what they please with the tools.

“There’s no standard as to how the information is displayed or how it is characterized,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org. “It may lead to confusion.”

A recent study by the Institute for College Access & Success found examples of some early adopter schools designing calculators that put “net price” in small print, while highlighting a much lower “net cost”—factoring in thousands of dollars in loans and work study.

That’s just the sort of practice that student advocates are hoping to avoid.