Use This Nifty Net Price Calculator To Estimate College Expenses

how to determine what your favorite college will really cost after accounting for scholarships and financial aid



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The price of a college education has never been higher. According to the College Board, the average private college now costs over $34,000 per year. And that’s just for tuition and fees. Throw in room and board, books, and other expenses for four years and the total cost could exceed $250,000 by the time your future scholar walks across the graduation stage.

To complicate things, every school is different. Prices vary. Scholarship opportunities and financial aid vary as well. As I have said before, financial aid varies from school to school, family to family, and even student to student within the same family.

Even if you don’t believe you will qualify for any financial aid, you will want to use this nifty calculator to get an estimate of what you can expect to pay at the specific schools your student is considering. 

Net Price Calculator. The “net price” of a college education is the school’s published total cost of attendance less any amounts the student may receive in grants, scholarships, loans and other financial aid. In a simple example, if the total cost of attendance is $50,000 and your student qualifies for a $15,000 merit-based scholarship, then her net price would be $35,000 per year.

All colleges are required to have a Net Price Calculator on their website, but these calculators can be hard to find. The easiest way is to simply enter “net price calculator” in the school’s website’s search bar. This should take you where you need to go.

Each calculator can be a little different, but the best ones will ask you to enter the student’s parents’ income and assets, the student’s income and assets, and other relevant information like the student’s GPA, ACT scores, marital status, etc.

Entering your info takes about 10 minutes. When you finish, the calculator will provide you with an estimate of the total cost of attendance, estimated grant or gift aid, estimated self help (aka a student loan) as well as the estimated remaining cost that the student and her family will need to come up with to pay for college at that school.

As an example, check out this Net Price Calculator at Carleton College in Northfield, MN.

The key number is the “estimated remaining cost”. This is the figure that tells you what you can expect to pay for college at that particular school after factoring in scholarships, financial aid and other details.

You can use this information to compare one school to another. For example, two schools could have a similar “sticker price”, but very different numbers for the estimated remaining cost. That difference can add up to tens of thousands of dollars over the course of a college career.

Informed parents who want to find colleges that are a good financial fit for their family will need this information before making promises and commitments to their student.

College Navigator. Looking up each school’s net price calculator takes a lot of time. The College Navigator at the National Center for Education Statistics saves time by helping you build a list of schools that could be a good fit for you student (and your wallet).

Colleges that pop up in your search include a profile with links to their website and other key information such as tuition and fees, financial aid, and the school’s Net Price Calculator. From there you can enter your information and start to develop a list of potential schools that are both a good academic fit for your student AND a good financial fit for your family.

Minnesota Office of Higher Ed. Another great resource for parents looking to pay less for college is the website at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. There you will find information regarding tuition and fees, and links to all the accredited colleges and universities in our regional area including Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas.

In fact, I would even say that the MN Office of Higher Ed website is a Minnesota parent’s best source of college planning information. If you want to pay less for your kids’ college education, this website should be on your short list of resources.

Financial aid for college varies from school to school, family to family, and even student to student within the same family. Knowing what a college will cost before you make a final college choice is the key to paying less for college.

The single biggest factor determining how much you will pay for college is the school your student chooses to attend. Know what you are getting into before you make commitments to your student that you can ill afford or that will result in a significant debt load for your student.

Use the Net Price Calculator to make yourself a smart consumer of a college education.