Want to get a feel for how much financial help a college will give you before you apply? Try using the college’s net price calculator.
Once you start narrowing your list of colleges, it’s time to use the net price calculators. You want to make sure that most, if not all, of the schools you end up applying to offer enough financial aid for you to afford to go.
Colleges are required to have a net price calculator on their website. They’re easy to use. You plug in information about your family’s finances and your academics. The calculators will then estimate how much government and college money you may be eligible for. This is based on your family’s financial need — and how good your grades and test scores are.
There are also websites that allow you to compare a number of colleges at once. Two free ones are the federal government’s College Scorecard and the College Board’s Net Price Calculator page.
Tips for Getting Started With a Net Price Calculator
1. Get Organized: Before you use a net price calculator, gather the following documents as you’ll need to refer to them when answering questions. (These are many of the same items you will need to fill out the FAFSA.)
- Parent and student tax returns and W-2 forms
- Mortgage information
- Bank account information
- Academic information (usually your high school grade point average)
- SAT or ACT scores
2. Read Questions Carefully: Just like the FAFSA, some questions will be about you, the student, and some will be about other members of your household—parents, siblings, etc., so make sure you’re answering the questions accurately.
Also, not every question may apply to you. For instance, don’t worry if the net price calculator asks for information about a mortgage or stock holdings and no one in your family has either. Just skip those questions.
3. Don’t Know the Answer? You Can Estimate: Colleges do not see the information you enter. The net price calculator is not an official application for aid. It’s just for your personal use. If you’re unsure of an answer to a question, give your best estimate. If you realize you answered a question incorrectly, just start over and re-enter the correct information. Do the best you can. If you are more accurate, your college price estimate will be more accurate.
4. Try the College Board’s Net Price Calculator: The College Board has a net price calculator that many colleges and universities use. It offers direct links to each participating school’s net price calculator, so there is no need to search through individual school’s websites. It also allows you to compare a number of colleges at once. However, if you’re interested in a school that does not use the College Board’s net price calculator, then you’ll need to search for it on that school’s website.
5. Save Your Information and Documents: Start a file with the documents and financial information you used to for the net price calculators. You will use the same kind of information to complete your FAFSA form. Completing the FAFSA will be much easier now that you have gathered this information!
Learn More: Sticker vs. Net Price: Finding Colleges You Can Afford
Laura Zingmond is the editor of InsideSchools.org and a seasoned veteran of the college financial aid system. Ask her anything about the FAFSA or CSS Profile.