Financial Aid

Amherst, Duke, and University of Michigan on College Board’s Updated Net Price Calculator

Paying for college is a serious concern for many students. It’s important for families to understand the true costs of going to college, particularly the difference between sticker price and net price.

When there is seemingly so much at stake, it can be hard for students and their families to relax when planning for college. The College Board and Seventeen magazine recently surveyed over 110,000 students and found that 80% of graduating seniors said the biggest challenge they’re facing is the cost of tuition and student loan debt.

Paying for college is a serious concern for many students. It’s important for families to understand the true costs of going to college, particularly the difference between sticker price and net price. The latter is a college’s sticker price for tuition and fees minus the amount received in grants, scholarships, and education tax benefits.

Fortunately, planning for college doesn’t have to be stressful. Through BigFuture, a free online college planning tool, the College Board provides resources to help students and families find, apply to, and pay for college. The College Board recently updated its Net Price Calculator—a free online tool that gives students a personalized estimate of a college’s net price by asking questions about family finances.

We recently asked a few leaders from our member schools to share their thoughts about the newly launched and redesigned Net Price Calculator. Miranda McCall, senior associate director of Duke’s financial aid office, and Elaine Kinloch, assistant director for support services at the University of Michigan, discuss their experience using the tool at their schools. Gail Holt and Kenzie Bruso, dean of financial aid and assistant director of admission and financial aid information systems respectively at Amherst College also weighed in on the updated tool.

Q: What are the top features the NPC offers your students?

MM: Beyond the aesthetic updates, the navigation now allows users to go back and edit any portion of the calculator without starting over or losing their data, and they are provided a link upon completion so they can always access their results. The help text throughout the calculator is much easier to access and understand—there seems to be much less confusion regarding what information a family needs to enter to receive an accurate result. This is helped by the fact that the welcome page provides a section where messages and instructions specific to the school can be highlighted. It’s no longer buried in between outdated graphics, data, and other visuals—the most important information is front and center without any clutter. We received far fewer calls and emails related to aid estimates derived from the NPC than in the past, and I attribute much of that reduction in phone and email volume to the updated interface.

KB: Having the ability to choose who (student, parent or counselor) will be filling out the calculator is quite helpful to students and parents. The hints that pop up seem to help students and/or parents navigate the tool better.

Q: What can you tell us about your experience navigating the new Net Price Calculator administration module?

MM: The navigation is very user-friendly within the administration module. The help buttons in each section link directly to video tutorials that demonstrate how to use each tool, though the new interface is largely self-explanatory. Making updates to tables and formulas was intuitive.

KB: We have had a positive experience navigating the new administration module. I find it more intuitive than the older version. For whatever reason, in the old module, it always took me a minute to find the correct menu for whatever it is I needed to adjust.  The new module is visually more appealing which I believe makes it easier to maneuver around.

Q: How well does our NPC communicate to a student your college’s Net Price?

GH: The [redesigned] Net Price Calculator prominently displays the net price and standardizes the categories of costs that families can expect to incur across institutions.  The placement of the gift aid immediately following the costs, followed by the net price makes it clear how that is calculated and what ‘net price’ actually means.

MM: As long as federal requirements regarding net price calculators remain as they are, I think there will always be a disconnect between calculator results and what families understand about the amount they’ll have to pay an institution. That hurdle aside, the delivery of the information on the results page of the Net Price Calculator is clear and concise.

EK: Provided the family answers the questions correctly, our aid awards are nearly identical to those posted by the NPC and we frequently recommend the tool to those students who are looking for an idea of aid before we begin our awarding process.

Q: How easy is it to implement and customize the new Net Price Calculator?

MM: Since we migrated from the legacy version to the new version, I can’t speak to what an initial implementation might entail, but I can say that migration to the new calculator was extremely easy. There was no transition period necessary to adjust to the updates, and all our customizations were preserved. Making updates to tables and formulas was intuitive.

KB: It did not take long at all to implement and customize the new Net Price Calculator. I had to update our cost of attendance and it only took a matter of minutes.  Any questions I’ve had about the tool have been answered in a timely manner by NPC support, which is great. The Branding section of the module gives us the ability to make changes to the appearance of our site, and the tool is quite easy to use.

Q: As a financial aid administrator that has used both the old and new format, what new features do you most like?

EK: Input and editing of formulas on the administrator side is much improved, while the questions clarity and layout on the user side is much better.

MM: The new interface is incredibly easy to use compared to its predecessor. The inspector feature is a core component of the new navigation, so I can model the impact of any updates I make before the changes are published. For those of us familiar with the old interface, there is also an option to compare new results to the legacy engine before going live, and all changes can be made without ever taking the NPC offline.

Additionally, the ability to apply institutional messaging and branding to the calculator has been a much-anticipated change. The style is clean and modern, and because the look is consistent with our institutional branding guidelines, we’re able to provide students with a seamless experience as they move from our site to the NPC.

KB: We have enjoyed numerous updates to the Net Price Calculator. One new feature that has been helpful is the students ability to share a link of their calculator results with our office. There have been a number of times this has proven helpful when troubleshooting or providing customer service. The Inspector tool has been quite useful when it comes to testing calculator results. I also like the control we have with updating our branding on the external-facing site.

Q: Does your use of the College Board Net Price Calculator provide assurance to your institution that your institution is in compliance with the Higher Education Opportunity Act?

MM: Absolutely. Beyond being a helpful tool for students and families, the College Board NPC complies with the HEOA requirements and gives us peace of mind that we remain in compliance with federal standards.

GH: The College Board Net Price Calculator provides assurance that we can meet our obligation to the terms of the Higher Education Opportunity Act by standardizing the calculation and display of Net Price in two locations before listing the family contribution broken out by parent and student.  Following the net price with additional self-help sources, show how the net price can be met (or reduced).