Most students pay a discounted rate for college known as the “net price”: the full cost of going to a college—tuition, room and board, books, transportation, and student fees—minus grants and scholarships. (It doesn’t include loans or work-study money.) The net price for college, explained Lauren Asher, the president of the Institute for College Access and Success, differs from school to school and from student to student because it’s based on the family’s finances, a college’s priorities and available funds, and the given state’s resources.
According to Jennifer Ma, a policy-research scientist at the College Board, about two-thirds of all students nationwide receive some form of grant or scholarship. Students at private, four-year colleges received an average of $17,500 in such aid and tax benefits in 2015, College Board research shows, while the typical student at a four-year, public institution received $5,400. In some cases, Ma noted, a student may find that a well-endowed private college ends up costing less than a public college.
Families and students can utilize a variety of resources to estimate the cost of college that are available from private organizations, the federal government, and individual colleges. For example, the College Board has created a series of online resources for parents, which explains terms like “net price,” describes key financial-aid forms, helps students find the right schools, and provides checklists for the application process. The nonprofit has also assisted some institutions create a common net-price calculator.
David Hawkins, the executive director of Educational Content and Policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, recommended that parents and students use the Department of Education’s College Scorecard and College Navigator to get very rough estimates of the average annual cost of higher education for a student. Those numbers, however, give only broad averages and can be confusing, as they only include information about students who qualify for federal financial aid.
Still, most colleges recommend using their own net-price calculators, which typically ask for things like adjusted gross income, 401(k) contributions, paid income tax, investments, and savings. Some calculators include questions about a student’s GPA and SAT scores. College financial-aid officers say that their school’s net-price calculators are accurate provided that individuals input the correct data. Hawkins emphasized that online net-price calculators are just estimates; students won’t know the final cost for college until the aid package arrives at the end of this process. Lots of variables are at play when a college determines the cost of a college for a student, he said, and not all of those variables are represented in net-price calculators. Nor do these calculators take into consideration special circumstances that would affect a family’s ability to afford the full price of college—a dependent with significant health-care needs, for example, or a sudden job loss. In addition, the process is time consuming. For families that want to compare net prices at multiple schools, like Princeton, Rutgers, University of Illinois, and New York University, a parent would need to input financial figures at each website, a process that could take several hours.