Clarity and Confusion From Tuition Calculators

Ann McClure's picture
Friday, January 18, 2013

The annual ritual of college admissions has shifted from the season of applying to the season of waiting. While that means an anxious vigil for millions of teenagers like Zachary Ewell, it goes double for their parents. Heidi and Mike Ewell must wait not only to learn where Zachary will go, but also how many thousands of dollars they will have to pay.

Zachary, a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School near Chicago, and his parents have a new window into college pricing that millions of families before them did not. Federal rules require colleges to provide online calculators that generate a personalized estimate of the net price of attendance, based on answers to a series of questions about a family’s finances.

Many families are approaching these new tools with caution, however, finding that they vary widely in thoroughness and clarity. Moreover, there is no publicly available information for gauging how accurate they are.

In addition, college administrators say that low-income families, in particular, often do not know that the net-price calculators exist. And even many financially and technically savvy upper-middle-class parents like the Ewells have made limited use of the calculators.

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