Improved Guidance for Colleges on Net Price Calculators

We applaud the Department of Education’s recent improvements to the guidance for college net price calculators, which address several of the issues raised in our report last year. If colleges follow the new guidance, net price calculators will be much easier to find, use, and compare.

The new guidance directs schools to make these tools easier to find in several ways:

  • We found some net price calculators buried deep within school websites. The new guidance strongly urges colleges to post their calculators prominently where students and families are likely to look for information on costs and aid, such as on the Financial Aid, Prospective Students, or Tuition and Fees webpages.
  • Other calculators are hard to find because they are not consistently labeled. The guidance makes clear that these tools must be called “net price calculators” and not other names.
  • The Department also instructs colleges to provide direct links to their net price calculators for use in consumer tools such as College Navigator and the new College Scorecard. Previously, some schools provided links to their home page instead.

The new guidance also aims to make the calculators easier to use and their results easier to compare:

  • We found calculators that made it look like the user’s contact information was required to get a net price estimate. The Department’s guidance clarifies that the calculators cannot require contact information and says those questions should be clearly marked as optional.
  • Some calculators misleadingly used outdated cost information or emphasized the cost after subtracting loans as well as grants and scholarships, which is not the “net price.” The new guidance makes clear that the calculators must use the most recent data available and reinforces the importance of the legally required net price figure, which is the cost after grants and scholarships alone. Only by comparing net price to net price can consumers see meaningful differences in what they might have to save, earn, and/or borrow to pay for college.

Our report identifies several other improvements that would make net price calculators much more user-friendly, such as making the user’s “net price” estimate the most prominent figure on the page, limiting the number of detailed questions (especially those that are required), and making it clear which questions are really required.  But the new guidance – if followed – is an important step toward helping prospective college students and their families look beyond intimidating “sticker prices” and start figuring out which schools they might be able to afford.

To view the Department’s updated guidance on net price calculators, visit the Net Price Calculator Information Center and view the recent Dear Colleague Letter. For more information about net price calculators, visit our resource page.

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