Net Price Comparison Guide

What is a net price? Calculate your net price for college with this guide to comparing college costs.

By Christa Fletcher | November 08, 2013

Know the net price of colleges so you can find the best school for you with limited debt and a program you can afford.
Photo: ThinkStock

Every student should consider the net price of schools they've applied to prior to deciding which one to attend. By comparing the net price of colleges, students will gain a full perspective of their investment and responsibility, while also weighing the pros and cons of a given campus and its costs.

Having a clear idea of what a student is expected to pay is the first step in making a college decision once he or she is accepted. Every school has different costs for tuition, housing, meal plans, books, transportation and other fees. Schools, the state and federal government also award varying amounts of financial aid that will directly affect a student's net price.

Be sure to examine the tuition, housing, food and other costs at your prospective colleges. Expenses add up quickly!

Since each year the Cost of Attendance (COA) at colleges, universities and community colleges continues to rise, be careful to analyze the cost of the schools that interest you. By getting the best deal you'll reduce your chances of graduating with student loan debt despite the rising costs of higher education.

What's a net price?

As you probably know, the most important step in the college application process is figuring out how you're going to pay for college. Your net price is what you will be expected to pay for your college education once you subtract your scholarships and grant money. While you probably chose your college choices based on the "sticker price," which is the general amount of the cost to attend a college, that's often not the cost you will have to pay.

Once students know what their net price will be they can figure out if they need other forms of financial aid like student loans, and work-study programs. The Department of Education has a new tool for students called the College Scorecard, which can provide an estimate of what students will have to pay at different schools before they apply.

However, if you've already applied, you should have also completed a Free Application Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form will show you if you qualify for any federal, state or campus financial aid. After you begin receiving acceptance letters from colleges, the next essential step is evaluating your financial aid packages from different schools with the information from your FAFSA in order to determine your net price.

What's a net price calculator?

If you've filled out your FAFSA you will receive a financial aid award letter from the schools that have accepted your application. Once you review your award letter you will be able to calculate your net price. Every accredited school that accepts federal aid from the government is required to help students understand what their net price will be for the coming school year. According to the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), these calculators must base their estimates for students on the average costs for current students, but provide details that are customized to each specific student.

While some of these calculators are reported to be hard to find and lack uniformity, every college with federal financial aid has them.

You can find these net price calculators on school websites and enter your specific information and it will break down the costs. If you want to see an example of a net price calculator check out Harvard's easy one-sheet or the UC Irvine net price calculator.

Each net price calculator helps students figure out their net price based on a few standard factors according to the NCES:

  • Every net price calculator will require that you enter the student's Expected Family Contribution (EFC), such as income, number of family members and whether the student is a dependent or independent.

With this information the net price calculators will provide an output of the following information for you about the school:

  • Estimated total cost of attendance
  • Estimated tuition and fees
  • Estimated room and board
  • Estimated books and supplies
  • Estimated other expenses (personal expenses, transportation, etc.)
  • Estimated total grant aid
  • Estimated net price
  • Percent of the cohort (full-time, first-time students) that received grant aid
  • Caveats and disclaimers, as indicated in the HEA

The campus' net price calculators are easy to use and will provide the information you need to compare the cost of colleges and make a sound financial decision for you with your parents.

How to Compare Net Prices of Colleges

Once you enter your information into the net price calculators at your prospective schools, we recommend comparing the costs side by side with all of your choices in a spreadsheet. By looking at all of your choices and costs in one place, you'll be able to analyze what matters most to you.

For example, if the tuition at a particular campus is high, but the housing cost is low, but another school has a low tuition and high housing cost, you should think about how the programs at the two schools differ given the varying costs of tuition.

Plus, tuition fees often increase over the course of the time you're at a school, but you can often find cheaper housing options after your first year once you know the area and meet friends who you can live with and split the cost of rent.

Another thing you should consider is state aid. If you're looking at schools in different states, you may receive more financial aid in-state, so your net price will be lower than what you would pay out-of-state. However, some schools seek out-of-state students, so you should see how the net prices compare with all of your choices.

Weigh the pros and cons of all the costs, including the cost to travel to and from home during breaks and summer. These hidden costs can add to your net price. Ultimately, choosing a college is a big financial decision, but you should also factor in your happiness. Choose the school that's best for you and the most affordable!

Quick Facts

  • Don't forget to fill out your FAFSA on time. Student aid is based on a first-come, first-serve basis.
  • Be sure to look at all the costs like transportation, wardrobe (if you'd need to wear different clothing in a new state), etc. These additional costs are not included in the net price, but can quickly add up.
  • Review the net prices with you parents and make sure everyone feels comfortable with what you and your family will be expected to pay for each school before you send in your response to a school.

People Who Read This Article Also Read:

What is Your Expected Family Contribution (EFC)?
How to Complete Your FAFSA
Understanding Student Aid: Federal, State and College Aid
Are You Eligible for Federal Financial Aid?
What to Do When You Receive a Student Aid Report (SAR)

See All College Financial Aid: The Basics of Student Aid and FAFSA Articles

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