Estimating College Costs

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In 1959, America would have been unrecognizable to a time traveler from 1886 — city skylines illuminating the night sky, cars zipping along highways, jumbo jets roaring above at 30,000 feet — just about every aspect of daily life had radically changed. Yet, amazingly, one thing would have been startlingly familiar, as it remained constant during that 73-year span: The 5-cent bottle of Coca-Cola.

If only the world of college tuition prices had a fraction of that steady predictability. Even fully accounting for inflation, college costs have tripled since 1979, doubled since the late ’80s, and price increases continue to outpace inflation every year. For all of the exorbitant costs, one would hope that colleges and universities were at least transparent and straightforward with their pricing. Unfortunately, tuition pricing has more in common with your perpetually rising cable bill or the mysterious fees that suddenly surface when you buy a car.

Estimating college costs merely by comparing sticker prices is not often a fruitful endeavor, and without a “good faith estimate” of the impact of a family’s financial standing and merit aid on the final bill, many applicants remain completely in the dark. To address the problem of tuition obfuscation, the U.S. Congress passed a bill in 2011 that requires colleges to post a “net price calculator” on their websites.

What does a net price calculator do?

Just like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or College Scholarship Service profile, an institution’s net price calculator can use your previous year’s tax returns, as well as information about your assets, to give you an estimated cost of attendance. While there is nothing official about this estimate, it can be a very helpful tool for applicants early in the process to get a ballpark figure of what a given school will cost.

How do I find a school’s net price calculator?

Just Google the name of the school with “net price calculator.” The U.S. Department of Education also offers a convenient website where you can quickly search for the net price calculator of any institution:

How long does it take?

The quality of a net price calculator can, in part, be measured by how long it takes you to complete it. The rule of thumb for the time it should take to plug in your data is 15-20 minutes. Have documents related to family income, assets and investments by your side. If a net price calculator is going to tell you anything accurate, all of this information will be required.

Can a net price calculator reliably help you select schools you can afford?

If there is no conceivable way you or your family will be able to pay for a particular college based on your net price calculation, consider scrapping that application entirely. There is no reason to waste money and precious time completing an application for a school that, even in the best-case merit aid scenario, is well beyond your financial reach. The worst strategy you can employ is to base your entire set of applications on pure financial guesswork. Netting a handful of acceptance letters from schools you can’t afford to attend without taking out massive student loans is not an enviable position to find yourself in. Make sure you pick at least one financial safety school that a quality net price calculator can help you select with confidence.

Dave Bergman, Ed.D., is a co-founder of College Transitions, a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. He is also a co-author of “The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process.” Learn more at