Questioning the Calculations: Are Colleges Complying With Federal and Ethical Mandates for Providing Students With Estimated Costs?, 2:00 - 3:00 p.m.

By Charlotte Etier, Assistant Director of Research Development & Grants

In the session "Questioning the Calculations: Are Colleges Complying With Federal and Ethical Mandates for Providing Students With Estimated Costs?" presenters Jeremy Wright-Kim and Laura Perna examined 80 net price calculators across 4-year public and private institutions to determine the usability and usefulness. 

Focused on institutions that enroll higher numbers of Pell Grant recipients, the researchers began by creating rubrics to examine the participating institutions' current net price calculators. Their sample included three major types of calculators: the federal template (30), created using an outside vendor (38), created by the institution (10). In conducting their research they aimed to answerthree major questions:
  1. How do selected institutions present information on costs and aid?
  2. How does usefulness and usability of the information vary by NPC template?
  3. What are the implications for colleges and universities?

Some of the key takeaways from their findings are as follows:

  • Most institutions were using outdated cost data (only 29 used 2017-18 or 2018-19 data, the rest were using older award years).
  • Only 37 institutions disaggregated the grant aid by source.
  • All institutions included direct and indirect costs, but many did so in varying ways, and 26 institutions did not highlight the appropriate net cost number.
  • Forty-four institutions listed loans on their net price calculators. Of those, 12 listed them as "aid" and didn't say they were loans, and 17 indicated they would need to be repaid.
  • Work-study was referenced by 73 institutions, but it was mostly placed down at the bottom of their calculation without an explanation.
  • One institution included a reference to Parent PLUS loans in their (incorrectly calculated) net price. 
From a usability standpoint the findings noted that 11 of the net price calculators were impossible to find on the institution's website unless you put "net price calculator" into the search feature. Additionally very few offered options to connect the user with a contact in the financial aid office. Some schools offered multiple points in which the users can obtain cost information, and as a result, conflicting information was a problem at 22% of the schools in this sample. From a usefulness standpoint the researchers noted that 45 asked merit-related questions, 28 awarded more aid to high achieving dependent students; 23 awarded more to high achieving independent students, and 34 estimated different cost/aid for dependent and independent students.
Overall, the researchers recommend schools strive to be as transparent with students as possible, disclose the full costs, including information on individual elements used in the calculation, very specifically describe aid being offered and detail the differences in grants and loans, and align the information being shared across their website so there are no discrepancies. You can find the details and recommendations from their findings on their website. The full report will be published later in 2019.


Publication Date: 6/25/2019

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