Report Claims Net Price Calculators Still Hard to Find, Use, Compare

Prospective college students and their families reported difficulty finding, using and comparing many colleges’ and universities’ net price calculators, according to a new report from The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS).

Federal legislation passed by Congress in 2008, in an effort to improve consumer information, required most colleges and universities to implement a net price calculator (NPC) on their website by Oct. 2011.The legislation defines estimated net price as the difference between an institution’s average, total price of attendance and need- and merit-based grant aid awards. The legislation does not allow inclusion of private grants and scholarships in the calculation.

The TICAS report, "Adding It All Up 2012: Are College Net Price Calculators Easy to Find, Use, and Compare?" examined net price calculators at 50 randomly selected colleges’ nearly a year after implementation. The report analyzes the calculators from the perspective of students and families.

“We found that, nearly a year after the federal requirement, consumers can’t count on net price calculators’ being easy to find, use, or compare,” said report author and TICAS research analyst Diane Cheng. “While some were easy to find and use, others were buried on college websites, had dozens of daunting questions, or generated estimates that were confusing, misleading, or unnecessarily out-of-date.”

The report does not explore why some campuses why some schools have struggled to implement the NPC.  Some schools -- like those with significant institutional funds that use institutional methodology – may have an especially tough time balancing simplicity with accuracy, and fear that the NPC may actually be unhelpful for some students.

  • The report found that nearly one-quarter of colleges in the sample did not provide a link to the NPC on their financial aid page or college cost section of their website. Even when the link was on a relevant page, it was often hard to find. Of the 50 colleges in the sample, three had no net price calculator. 
  • On usability, the number of questions asked by the calculators ranged from eight to about 70. More than one-third asked for information that students and parents would not be able to provide without digging up detailed financial records, and only four indicated whether any such questions were optional. The majority of the calculators in the sample did not tell students how the information would be used. 
  • On comparability, some colleges subtracted loans and work from the net price estimate, frequently making the resulting lower dollar figure more prominent than the required net price figure. Forty percent of calculators in the sample provided cost estimates for academic years as far back as 2008-09 and 2009-10. 

The report includes a list of recommendations for colleges and universities and the Department of Education to consider when evaluating, improving or implementing NPCs.

  • The NPC should be prominently featured on the financial aid page or college costs section of the institution website. 
  • The NPC should require a limited number of financial and academic questions, marking clear which questions are required. Institutions should also provide easy access to federally required estimates of the full cost of attendance, grant aid and net price. The net price should be the most prominent figure on the NPC results page. 
  • Clearly differentiate loans or student work as “self-help,” particularly compared to grants and scholarships. Also, limit recommended borrowing to federal student loans.

The report urges the ED to provide better guidance for institutions and increase enforcement of NPC requirements.

Resources

Net Price Calculator Buyer’s Guide (NASFAA website under Members/Professional Practice Tools/How-to Guides tabs)

Net Price Calculators: Finding the Right Fit (Student Aid Transcript Vol. 21 No.3)

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