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Clarity and Confusion From Tuition Calculators


THE NEW YORK TIMES. JANUARY 15, 2013.  The annual ritual of college admissions has shifted from the season of applying to the season of waiting. While that means an anxious vigil for millions of teenagers like Zachary Ewell, it goes double for their parents. Heidi and Mike Ewell must wait not only to learn where Zachary will go, but also how many thousands of dollars they will have to pay.

Zachary, a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School near Chicago, and his parents have a new window into college pricing that millions of families before them did not. Federal rules require colleges to provide online calculators that generate a personalized estimate of the net price of attendance, based on answers to a series of questions about a family’s finances.

Many families are approaching these new tools with caution, however, finding that they vary widely in thoroughness and clarity. Moreover, there is no publicly available information for gauging how accurate they are.

In addition, college administrators say that low-income families, in particular, often do not know that the net-price calculators exist. And even many financially and technically savvy upper-middle-class parents like the Ewells have made limited use of the calculators.

“We didn’t have a lot of confidence that those were real numbers,” said Ms. Ewell, a sales manager. “They’re all so different, and it seemed like there were such wide ranges and so many caveats that it really didn’t feel apples-to-apples.”

Sending children to college is one of the biggest financial commitments a family makes, yet historically, parents and students had no way to predict the cost before they applied. Informed consumers have long understood that the “sticker price” — now hovering around $60,000 at some private colleges — was often far more than what a family would have to pay. But until a student applied, was accepted and received a firm offer of financial aid, many found it hard to get even a rough idea of the actual price.

Net-price calculators, which federal officials began to require colleges to offer in October 2011, have forced open what had been a locked door, giving families an idea of what colleges would charge them.

“It’s a relatively new tool,” with flaws, inconsistencies and growing pains, but “just having them is a huge step in the right direction,” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit research and advocacy group that recentlypublished a report saying that too many of the calculators are hard to find on college Web sites, and hard to use.

College administrators say that their calculators draw significant traffic, but that many people start the process of entering their information but do not finish, or have trouble making sense of the calculators. Others simply do not know whether to trust the results.

“We looked at one or two, but we haven’t been using them,” said Eric L. Conley, whose daughter, Cydney, is also a senior at Oak Park and River Forest. “Mostly, we ask them in person about costs when we’re on campus visits.”

Experts caution against putting much stock in relatively small differences between different college calculators’ cost projections; the colleges stress that the results are nonbinding estimates. But in broad terms, they say, if used carefully, the calculators allow rough comparisons.

They also reveal patterns that are familiar to people in higher education, but may come as a surprise to others, like the fact that the most prestigious private colleges, which usually have the largest endowments, generally offer more aid and lower net prices than well-regarded but less-wealthy private colleges, especially for families with above-average incomes; or that some colleges tilt their generosity toward the lower end of the income scale, and others toward the upper-middle range.

Most important to selective private colleges, the calculators show that for all but high-income families, a well-endowed private college can be as affordable as a top state university.

“We still face a huge barrier of low-income families and first-generation college students not realizing that they can attend a school like Brown, in many cases, for less money than their local public college,” said James Tilton, director of financial aid at Brown University.

A 2008 federal law requires all colleges that participate in federal student aid programs to post net-price calculators on their Web sites. The Department of Education laid out a short list of required features and designed a template for a simple calculator, which many public colleges use. But colleges have wide latitude to take other factors into account, design their own calculators and ask far more questions.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: January 17, 2013

An earlier version of the chart with this article showed incorrect figures for the estimated amount that a family of a Harvard student would be expected to contribute toward tuition each year. A family with an income of $150,000 would contribute approximately $19,725 — not $30,975. And a family earning $100,000 would contribute about $12,725 — not $15,725.