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5 Tips for Using the Net Price Calculator

The best way to reduce the amount you need to borrow for college is to choose an affordable school. Be careful, though, don’t base your decision about what’s “affordable” on the published – or sticker – price of a school. Virtually no one pays that. What you want to know is your net price, what you’ll actually pay to attend the school after grants and scholarships are deducted from the published price, for the schools that interest you.

For example, Harvard University has a published price of $71,650/year, but the average financial aid package is $55,354. This brings the average net price for students with financial need down to $16,296 per year.

Figuring out your net price is easier than ever thanks to – believe it or not – the federal government. Because published prices are so deceiving, the federal government requires every school that receives federal student aid to have a net price calculator on their website. They do this, in part, so students will consider schools they otherwise might not consider based on the published price.

So how do net price calculators work?

The calculation begins with the published cost of attendance for a school. The cost of attendance typically includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and transportation and personal expenses. The calculator will ask you questions about your family’s income, number of family members, taxes paid, plus your academic information like grade point average (GPA) and American College Test (ACT) or Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) scores. It uses all this information to determine what you might be offered in the form of scholarships and grants and then subtracts those scholarships and grants from the cost of attendance to give you your net price.

  Estimated cost of attendance for a single academic year

–   Scholarships and financial aid

                =  Net price

Keep in mind that your net price may be different from your friends’ net price for a school. That’s because the net price is based on your personal situation and the college’s financial aid policies. Also remember this estimated net price is for your first year of college and may fluctuate year-to-year based on your own finances or the school’s decisions to adjust tuition and fees.

5 tips for using net price calculators:

Net price calculators make it easier to focus on colleges that are within your financial reach. They provide early, individualized estimates of what a specific school may cost after scholarships and grants. Keep these tips in mind to help you get the most out of net price calculators:

  1. Think “ballpark.”  Net price calculators provide estimates only. They are not binding financial aid awards. To get an actual financial aid offer, you’ll need to apply to the school for admission. You can use a net price calculator to help you decide if you want to apply.
  2. Not all net price calculators are created equal. While all calculators can provide an estimate of financial aid, some schools may subtract loans or work study from your final estimate. It’s important to take note of this because a loan is debt you’ll need to repay. Be sure you’re comparing apples to apples when reviewing the net prices of different schools. In addition, some schools may have a more advanced calculator. In general, the more questions asked, the more accurate the results will be. For example, you may be asked about your family’s finances, such as Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), savings, and information from your (or your parents’) tax returns. You may also be asked about your ACT/SAT scores, rank in class, and GPA.
  3. Check it out before you rule it out. Don’t automatically rule out a school because you think it’s too expensive. Check the net price first. On average, the net price of a school is substantially lower than the published price. That means a college you thought was out of your reach might actually be an affordable option.
  4. Know before you go. Use the net price calculator to determine if a school is an affordable option before you plan a campus visit. This can save you time and travel expenses. It’s also a great idea to research the school’s graduation rates; more years in college means more money spent. This tool from the National Center for Education Statistics helps you break down graduation rates by gender, race, and ethnicity.
  5. Start here. Go to the U.S. Department of Education’s website and enter the name of a college to easily find its net price calculator. If you prefer to go directly to a college’s website, we suggest first searching “name of school” + “net price calculator” so you don’t have to dig through the school’s website to find their calculator. Some calculators are posted on the homepage or in the Financial Aid, Admissions or other section of a site.

Don’t let the sticker price fool you! Be sure to check out a school’s net price calculator to get a better idea of the actual cost of attendance. Also, try out our College Search & Cost Comparison tool to help you compare the affordability of different schools.