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Quality of Net-Price Calculators Varies Among Colleges

The deadline of Oct. 29 is fast approaching for colleges to meet a federal requirement to have cost calculators on their websites. While designed to be a helpful way for families to comparison shop for colleges, the quality of what's been put online is mixed and not always user-friendly.

The Institute for College Access & Success looked at some of the early attempts at net-price calculators in its report Adding It All Up: An Early Look at Net Price Calculators and saw room for improvement.

The concept behind the mandate is to allow students to figure out what the exact cost of attending a specific institution would be after receiving grants and scholarships. Once students enter academic and financial information online, the college determines a net price that families would be expected to cover with savings, work, and loans.

The college-access institute found 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.

There were also misleading impressions of affordability. The institute found some calculators subtracted large amounts of presumed student income and loans from the net price and highlighted a cost figure as low as zero, rather than the net cost.

To remedy this problem, the report recommends that colleges:

-Make net-price calculators easy to locate on Web pages, with prominent links where prospective students usually look.

-Limit the number of required questions and keep them simple.

-Make the results highlight the net price rather than the cost after subtracting work-study and loans, which is often lower.

-Clearly distinguish between grants, work-study, and types of loans, which have different risks and costs.

-Emphasize that giving personal contact information is optional. Protect users' privacy and be transparent about who will have access to their information.

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