Students applying to college this fall have a new tool to help them compare costs at various campuses. This month, so-called "net price calculators" will appear on the websites of colleges nationwide, giving students and parents an idea of how much financial aid they could receive months before a formal offer arrives.
The idea behind the calculators -- required by federal law to be posted on college websites by Oct. 29 -- is that many students are discouraged from applying to a university when they see the price. A year of tuition, books, room and board now totals $30,000 at many public universities and north of $50,000 at many private ones.
But that's what experts call the "sticker price," the amount paid by students who don't get any financial aid. At many schools, the typical student receives aid. The new devices calculate the sticker price: the amount, after grants, that a student could expect to pay based on family finances and, in some cases, academic performance.
"I think it's really good ... for more people to understand that the sticker price is not the price they usually pay," said Sandy Baum, an economist at the George Washington School of Education and Human Development.
It's unclear whether the new calculators will revolutionize the college search or add more confusion. Some are hard to use because they require students to input extremely detailed financial information. Others are hard to find, buried deep on a college website.
Colleges even vary in what they call the calculators -- financial aid estimator, student aid calculator and net price calculator -- complicating the search.
On chat boards dissecting the college-application process, parents give calculators mixed reviews.
"This tool is one of the best innovations in financial aid," Rockvillemom wrote on CollegeConfidential.com.
Others weren't so enthralled.
"I filled out the U of MN calculator, and it indicates that our family should pay (at) $7,000 per year -- we can actually afford $0.00, AND my son needs to take out $7,000 in loan," wrote Nugraddad, who said he lives in the Chicago suburbs. "It also does not include any way of entering and/or estimating merit/scholarship money."