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New, Simpler Net Price Calculator May Improve College Cost Transparency

Families shocked by the sticker price that colleges publish are eager for a tool that helps them estimate the real, bottom-line cost that they will eventually pay.

While the federal government required colleges to build net-price calculators on their websites as part of legislation in 2008, what's been rolled out so far has not been particularly user-friendly or consistent. A study by The Institute for College Access & Success found that many calculators are "difficult for prospective college students and their families to find, use, and compare."

But a new calculator recently developed at Wellesley College in Boston has created a buzz for its simplicity and usefulness.

A paper published by the Brookings Institution this week suggests the new "My inTuition" calculator could replace the patchwork of what is being currently used by colleges and be more helpful to families. The new calculator requires users to only input nine pieces of information, such as annual income, house value, cash holding, and retirement and non-retirement investments. The responses help predict the amount of financial aid a student could expect. The average time to complete the form is just three minutes.

Ease of completion is key. Research finds that, among people who began entering information with the new Wellesley model, 80 percent finished doing so and received an estimate while just 30 percent completed the process with Wellesley's initial calculator.

David Leonhardt of The New York Times in an article Wednesday writes that the biggest downside to the Wellesley calculator is that users so far have tended to be higher income. He notes improvements have been made to the calculator to include work-study wages and loans that make the estimates more honest and helpful to families.

The Brookings paper says it is too soon to tell what impact My inTuition will have on applications, but Wellesley has seen a 20 percent increase in the number of prospective applicants following the adoption of the new calculator.

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