Everyone wants to know what they are going to have to pay for college. I have often said that understanding how college financial aid works will give you many of the answers.
But you want to know what the college you are interested in will cost. The New York Times has an article reviewing a recent higher education law that requires that all colleges offer a net price calculator on their web sites by 2011.
Many highly selective colleges have had such calculators on their web sites for years but the new mandate should help those students who are looking at less selective colleges. Many of these calculators have been developed by Think Ahead Inc. and in my experience the Think Ahead calculators are generally very accurate to give you your estimated contribution from the FAFSA.
The problem with these calculators is that the calculators have given families their expected family contribution but at most colleges, particularly the less selective, what you will need to pay often exceeds what the FAFSA says you can pay. This is the practice of gapping.
Since the new law requires colleges to give an estimate of net cost, the calculators at these less selective colleges will presumably figure the average gap into the calculations. That would then give families a more realistic estimate of what they might have to pay.
Be warned, however, that even the best of these calculators is giving you only an estimate. You won’t know until you get your financial aid award what you are really getting. But this simply tool should help increase the transparency that has been lacking in college financial aid.