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October 14, 2011 6:31 PM “Net” Price

By Daniel Luzer

According to a new article by Scott Waldman at the Albany Times-Union, families might now have a better idea what college will cost. As he writes:

High school seniors are in the middle of their college application process and the bills that people start dreading the moment their child is born will soon come due. However, a new federal law should ease some parental anxiety by requiring schools to be more transparent about just how much a higher education will cost.
By Oct. 29, colleges and universities will be required to have a net price calculator on their websites as part of The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. Parents and students can enter tax and income information and find out the true price tag of a school. The calculator is intended to give them an idea of a possible financial aid package and the cost of a school after fees and living expenses are added.
“A lot of colleges say they’re affordable and, using this tool, now you can find out if they are,” said Dan Lundquist, vice president for marketing and enrollment management at The Sage Colleges. “It’s encouraging families to get beyond this tool and look at the cost to them.”

Not so fast.

According to another piece, this one by Caralee Johnson Adams over at Education Week:

Some colleges buried net-price calculators in obscure parts of their website. Others asked up to 50 questions and required extensive financial and tax information. This can be discouraging to students unfamiliar with the application process, the report notes.

Waldman acknowledged this problem, also pointing out that some colleges appeared to subtract student loans from the total price, returning a net cost of zero, even though this is actually not remotely accurate, since students have to pay back those loans.

So there is a new law that requires colleges to put some sort of calculation of net price on their websites. But if these calculations are misleading, inaccurate, or not comparable, that doesn’t really do potential students any good, does it?

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer