What's so great about a college net price calculator?

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If you're saving for a child's college education, at some point you'll want to familiarize yourself with a college net price calculator, which is an invaluable tool for estimating financial aid and measuring a college's affordability. Available on every college website, a net price calculator gives families an estimate of how much grant aid a student might expect at a particular college based on his or her personal financial and academic profile and the college's specific criteria for awarding grant aid. A college's sticker price minus grant aid equals a family's "net" price, hence the name.

The idea behind a net price calculator is to give families who are researching colleges a more accurate picture of what their out-of-pocket costs are likely to be, rather than having them rely on a college's published sticker price. The figures quoted by a net price calculator aren't guarantees of grant aid, but the estimates are meant to be close, so running the numbers is an excellent way for parents to see what their net price might be at different colleges.

Keep in mind that each college has a different sticker price and formula for determining how much grant aid it distributes, so every calculator result will be different. For example, after entering identical financial and family information on three separate net price calculators, you might find that College A has a net price of $25,000 per year, College B has a net price of $30,000, and College C is $40,000.

A net price calculator typically asks for the following information: parent income and assets, student income and assets, and the number of children in the family, including how many will be in college at the same time. (Generally, the more children in college at the same time, the more grant aid.) It may also ask more detailed questions, such as a student's class rank and/or test scores, how much money parents have saved in employer retirement plans in the most recent tax year, current home equity, and how much parents expect to pay in health-care costs in the coming year.

A net price calculator typically takes about 10-15 minutes to complete and is time well spent. Typing "net price calculator" in the search bar of a college's website should direct you to it.


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