Why Prospective College Students Should Be Using Net Price Calculators

Katy Hopkins

While the average published tuition prices at colleges and universities have increased since the 2007-2008 school year, the average student has not shouldered the brunt of the rising costs, a new study has found.

The average in-state student at a four year public college is paying about $440 more in today's dollars for tuition and fees in the 2012-2013 school year than students did in 2007-2008, according to estimates in the College Board's "Trends in College Pricing 2012" study, released yesterday. And for students at private colleges, which tend to be more expensive, the average net price for tuition and fees decreased by $490 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

[See which colleges are cutting or freezing tuition.]

Grant aid from the federal government, state governments, and institutions themselves, in addition to education tax benefits, helped to absorb some of the tuition increases, according to the report's calculations and estimates.

Though average published in-state tuition jumped from $6,810 in 2007-2008 to $8,660 this year at four year publics, aid such as Pell grants and tax benefits helped to keep the increase in average net price for tuition and fees relatively small when comparing the two time periods. (The study notes, however, that federal aid was "unusually large" from 2008-2009 to 2010-2011, and that net tuition price has increased annually since.)

At private schools, published tuition rose from an average of $25,760 to $29,060 over the five years but was accompanied by more institutional aid--demonstrating that sticker prices don't always tell the full story to prospective students and their parents.

"Although it is generally the published prices that make headlines, it is the net prices paid by individual students that matter most for college access and affordability," write study authors Jennifer Ma and Sandy Baum.

[Find out how to pay for college.]

As the report notes, not every student will be charged the average net price for tuition. According to the College Board, about one third of students pay a school's published tuition price in full. Prospective college students and their parents can estimate their own cost of college by using net price calculators--tools which, by federal mandate, every college is required to post online.

"It's important that families look at what's been happening to average net prices; but they also, for those close to college age, should look at specific institutions and apply their own financial situation to see what their expected net price will be," College Board author Ma recommends.

The calculators require time, knowledge of family finances, and, often, some paperwork as families work to ballpark total costs. While the College Board statistics cited above focus solely on net tuition and fees, college net price calculators take into account the total cost of college for one year, including room, board, and other expenses, when creating individual estimates.

[See what else you need to know about using the calculators.]

Net price calculators aren't always easy to find. In a random sample of 50 colleges, about 25 percent of schools did not include a way to access the calculator on their financial aid websites, according to "Adding It All Up 2012: Are College Net Price Calculators Easy to Find, Use, and Compare?," a report from The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).

"Net price calculators are one of several new tools that can help bring more transparency to the process of deciding where to apply and how to pay for it, but you need to know they're out there and be able to find and use them easily," notes Lauren Asher, president of TICAS.

Still, with a little digging, students and parents should be able to find most colleges' net price calculators to begin experimenting. U.S. News has collated the net price calculators of the top 300 colleges to help launch your investigation.

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.