That question — and its elusive answers — underlie a basic issue that comes up each admissions season: College applicants and their families are at a severe information disadvantage, and many of the people who could do something about it are in no big rush to make things less complicated.
Since 2011, the federal government has required all colleges to post something called a net price calculator on their websites. College shoppers enter a bunch of financial information, and out comes an estimate of what the college may ask an admitted student to pay.
Net price calculators are much better than nothing. At their best, they prove that a college’s list price is a kind of fiction for many, or even most, students.
The calculators, however, are often confusing. Detailed studies have called out their shortcomings.
The problems with the calculators are nobody’s fault but also everyone’s. The government doesn’t set strict enough guidelines, addled families enter incorrect numbers, and colleges use subpar calculators or don’t regularly update the tool’s formulas. Moreover, while the calculators predict financial need, based on your earnings and relevant assets, they may not try to estimate so-called merit aid, which is based more on what a high school student has done inside or outside the classroom.
When William E. Staib, a technology and financial services industry veteran with six children including a foster daughter, first surveyed this mess as a parent, he — like other parents I wrote about two weeks ago — figured he could build a better tool. Today, over 250 schools license his net price calculators, and his company, College Raptor, offers rankings and other information on a website for consumers.