Net Price Calculators Help Gauge College Affordability

Fall is the time when many high school seniors narrow their college lists and start applying to colleges. One question that is often front and center on the minds of families is “how much will it cost?” To help answer that question, you can use a net price calculator, which is available on every college website.



How a net price calculator works. A net price calculator can help families measure a specific college’s true cost by providing an estimate of how much grant aid a student might expect based on his or her financial information and academic profile. A college’s sticker price minus grant aid equals a student’s net price, or out-of-pocket cost.

The numbers quoted by a college net price calculator are not a guarantee of grant aid, but the estimates are meant to be close. By completing a net price calculator for several colleges before officially submitting an application, students can get an idea of what their out-of-pocket cost would be at specific schools and rank colleges based on affordability.

What information it asks for. A net price calculator typically asks for the following information: parent income and assets, student income and assets, a student’s general academic record, and family size, including number of dependents. A net price calculator might also ask more detailed questions; for example, a student’s class rank and test scores, the amount parents contributed to their employer retirement plans in the last year, current home equity, or how much parents expect to pay in health-care costs in the coming year. Every college has its own net price calculator, so there may be slight variations in the questions that are asked.

A net price calculator takes about 10 to 15 minutes to complete. Typing “net price calculator” in the search bar of a college’s website should direct you to it.

Results can vary. Keep in mind that colleges have different sticker prices and criteria for determining how much grant aid they offer, so calculator results can vary, even when the same financial information is being entered. For example, after entering identical financial information on three different calculators, families might find that College A has a net price of $25,000 per year, College B a net price of $30,000, and College C a net price of $40,000. Running a net price calculator for colleges that are similar in terms of selectivity and sticker price can help families compare the generosity of colleges in a similar peer group.

Consider filing the FAFSA. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the 2022–2023 school year opened on October 1, 2021. Families should consider submitting it even if they don’t expect their child to qualify for need-based federal aid, because some colleges may require the FAFSA as a prerequisite for college-provided need-based and/or merit-based grants and scholarships.

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