Report: How accessible, helpful are college net price calculators?

Net price calculators (NPCs) are critical tools for students and families exploring college options, but a new study finds that a notable number of universities are “providing cost information that is confusing at best, misleading at worst.” The Higher Education Act stipulates that college websites should clearly display NPCs, which help students and their families look past an institution’s sticker price to better understand the amount they’d need to pay after factoring in their income and potential grants and scholarships.

Yet, the report published by the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy indicates that several of the 80 universities studied had no net price calculators on their websites at all. Nearly half of institutions, meanwhile, had NPCs that used three- or four-year-old data, or didn’t specify the year of the data. Several had outputs that didn’t differentiate loans from grants and scholarships.

Laura Perna, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an author of the study, told Inside Higher Ed that NPCs are key tools, given that “there are few ways to get an estimate of how much the out-of-pocket [college] costs will be early in the process.” Education Dive notes that, without accurate NPCs, high sticker prices can lead to undermatching or increase students’ risk of dropping out.

Related: How a low-cost mailer helped prevent undermatching >

The report recommends several ways colleges and policymakers can address the problem, including displaying NPCs prominently on college websites, explaining net price clearly, and ensuring any estimates adequately reflect a student’s circumstances. “The persistence of these problematic practices suggest that attention by federal policymakers continues to be really important,” Perna told Diverse Issues in Higher Education, adding that individual institutions also should carefully assess how well they’re helping students and families access the information they need to make informed decisions.

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