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Figuring College Costs With Net-Price Calculators Can Be Difficult

It's been a year since colleges have been required by the federal government to give consumers clear cost information with net-price calculators. A new report finds many schools still are not doing a good job providing students easy access to these online tools on their websites.

The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), an independent, nonprofit based in Washington, randomly reviewed the websites of 50 colleges. It discovered many calculators were hard to find, asked too many questions, or generated inaccurate estimates. Nearly 25 percent didn't provide a link to their calculator on the financial-aid or cost page of the website. Three had no calculators at all.

The calculators varied widely in complexity and format. To come up with an estimate, some schools asked eight questions; others up to 70. With some, loans were subtracted from cost totals, making it difficult to compare with others that did not, the TICAS analysis shows.

Colleges were mandated by Congress to develop a net-price calculator to make sure prospective students could understand the bottom-line price of attending a school—the full cost, minus likely grants and scholarships. Institutions stand to jeopardize their eligibility for Title IV and face a civil fine for each violation if they do not post the net price calculator to their Web site, according to the Federal Student Aid Handbook.

This TICAS report builds on one last October documenting poor compliance with the new requirement.

To remedy the situation, TICAS suggests net-price calculators be prominently posted on college websites, the number of questions limited, and the estimates clearly labeled. It also recommends more guidance and enforcement to provide better information to consumers.

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