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Online calculators will soon help the college-bound peg costs more accurately

October 6, 2011

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Students checking out colleges should not rule out any options based on price alone. The tuition and fees published online are often far more than what families end up paying. The true cost - after subtracting federal, state, and school grants - isn’t always clear until students receive award letters.

But starting Oct. 29, colleges must provide “net price calculators’’ on their websites. These will give families a better sense, early on, of actual costs.

“The sticker price is what people look at, but it’s not a good indicator of what your cost is going to be,’’ said Laura Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success.

It’s important to understand “net price.’’ This is the total cost - including books, room, and board - after the total estimated aid a particular student would receive from the school and the state and federal governments.

Schools are given a lot of leeway in how they arrive at this figure, however. The calculators can vary significantly in how much financial information they require.

The Department of Education asks just 10 questions. But schools can use their own or other outside calculators that require more details.

The College Board, for example, makes a much more involved calculator that will be used by 300 schools. Its five-page survey asks about dividend income, contributions to retirement plans, home values, and tax deductions.

“For better and worse, there’s no limit to what schools can add,’’ Asher says.

As involved as the process may sound, keep in mind that this is information that will be needed anyway for the FAFSA, or the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Also note that calculators give estimates; they can’t predict costs to the dollar.

“These calculators are good for determining whether a school is inside or outside the ballpark’’ of what you can afford, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Finaid.org.

And note that the aid a school provides in the first year is not guaranteed in following years.

If the calculator isn’t on the homepage, look under “Financial aid.’’ The calculator may also be listed under a different name, such as “financial aid estimator.’’

Some schools may provide a figure called “out-of-pocket cost’’ or “remaining cost.’’ Don’t be confused; this is the cost after the school factors in projected income from work and loans. For example, the Institute for College Access & Success found one school subtracted more than $33,000 in “loans or work study’’ to give students an “upfront cost’’ of zero. This gives “an illusion of affordability.’’

Even if the calculator spits out a net price that’s slightly out of your reach, don’t be discouraged. The calculator might not have taken into account special circumstances that could make you qualified for more aid.

Candice Choi writes for the Associated Press.