Are Online College Cost Calculators Flunking the Math? Oct. 29 is the federal deadline for U.S. colleges to put "net price calculators" on their websites. These tools are supposed to estimate the actual cost of tuition and room and board for a specific student, based on family finances and the school's aid budget. But the most widely adopted calculator is inaccurate -- to the tune of thousands of dollars, experts say.

Previously, students had to apply to a college and then wait for an aid award letter in the spring to find out if they could afford to attend. Those from lower-income families were often too discouraged by some colleges' "sticker prices" to apply at all. Thus the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 mandated the web-based estimators, which will appear on about 6,800 college sites. They're designed to give a ballpark estimate of real college costs in 15 minutes or less.

By one estimate, about a third of colleges have invested in robust, customized tools. (Elite schools have offered them for years.) Many others have posted a free calculator developed by the Department of Education. Critics say that one uses distorted definitions, minimal questions and old data -- resulting in estimates that are thousands of dollars too high or too low.

A study conducted by Student Aid Services, one of a dozen firms that builds custom calculators, ran 145,000 real student profiles through the federal tool. The results were wrong 54% of the time. For example, for one student from a family of five, with two other children in college and parent income of $80,500, the net price estimate came in $5,500 too high.

"Colleges enter all the data to make the calculator work, but it operates with very few questions and there is no algorithm behind the federal template -- it's simple spreadsheets," says Mary Fallon, spokesperson for Student Aid Services. "And the data is two years old."

Mistakes Built in to the Calculations

Fallon's company clearly has a stake in discrediting its main competitor. But other critics have found different problems. For example, the federal calculator defines "net price" as the cost of attendance minus the average institutional/government grant for first-year, full-time students. The "average grant" is calculated as the average among the two-thirds of students receiving grants, not all students, notes Mark Kantrowitz, founder of, a college information website. This understates the real bottom-line cost by more than $2,500, or about 11% on average.

Rice University in Houston tried the federal calculator, a Texas state template and a College Board tool before investing in a custom estimator. "The federal one wasn't giving a real accurate picture of costs," says Anne Walker, director of student financial services. "We spent a lot of time testing formulas to make sure we were getting as close as we could. We know we can never hit it right on the money because there is an art and science to create an aid package." But the tool offers a better ballpark estimate for families who might otherwise be put off by Rice's sticker price of about $43,000 for tuition, room and board, and fees.

Another quirk in the federal calculator: It facilitates the bait-and-switch known as "front-loading." That's when colleges offer more generous aid to first-year students and pull back in subsequent years. It often makes a private institution look cheaper than a state school. Because the calculations are based on data from first-year students, families may use that estimate to price a four-year degree and get caught short later on.

"Federal loan limits rise as students get into later years, which makes it convenient to shift away from grant aid and toward loan aid," says Zac Bissonnette, author of the book Debt-Free U (and a former columnist for DailyFinance). "That's why many students end up graduating with more debt than they expected."

In addition, the net price definition fails to account for housing choices: Kantrowitz found a difference of up to $6,112 on average for students who live on campus, off campus or with their parents. Also, the federal estimator applies to in-state, full-time applicants only. An out-of-state student who unwittingly uses the tool will find it understates his cost by $11,013 on average; a part-time student will find it overstates the real bottom-line cost by $6,693.

Virginia Tech professor Lefter Daku, who served on the committee that created the calculator, has questioned its accuracy in computing the expected family contribution (EFC) -- or the amount a family can afford to chip in for college costs. The lower the EFC, the more aid a student will receive. The federal tool asks only seven questions to determine EFC, compared to the federal student aid application (FAFSA), which uses 74 different data points.

Going Beyond the Tool

The Department of Education defends the calculator. "We know our model is basic and some schools have gone above and beyond, but we think it will be a helpful tool as a first step," says DOE spokeswoman Sarah Gast.

So what can families do?

1. Look at the number of questions posed by the calculator. "If it's less than 15, you are getting an incorrect estimate," says Fallon. "Around 25, you're getting a rough estimate, and with 30 to 45 questions, you are likely getting an accurate estimate."

2. Once you have the dollar figure, call the college and inquire if the ballpark figure is accurate. "Parents really need to talk to the financial aid offices of the schools they are thinking about sending their son or daughter to," says Walker.

3. Look at the percentage of students who matriculate and actually graduate from the institution. That may give you an idea of whether a school is aggressively front-loading, causing students to drop out or change colleges when their costs rise. (Just keep in mind that other factors may be at work in graduation rates, so ask the schools about them.)

"I think the calculators are helpful, but not especially important, because what you should be thinking about is how to get out of school with no leverage," says Bissonnette. "For nine out of 10 families, an in-state public college is the most affordable way to go to college."

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West Texas A&M University is bucking the trend: next year all out of state students will pay Texas resident tuition + $30/per credit hour. And annual tuition is less than average at US universities according to the new College Board report. Info is at

October 27 2011 at 1:22 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I grad from U of I in 1952 with no debt. MY first 2 years was at Wright jr. (no cost except books) then I went to navy peer on the bus and then down to Urbana IL.for 2 years no cost . What hoppened????

October 19 2011 at 6:24 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I taught college for eight years. It's all a sick joke on idealistic kids and ill-informed parents. If you're a white, middle income, tax paying family, you're screwed. You get nothing to help with costs. Instead you have to pay exhorbitant costs to pay for the minorities and illegals getting it for free.

October 18 2011 at 7:40 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Well, the CLYDE's (crazy, libtard yahoos, demanding entitlements) protesting on wall street came up with another CLYDE Manifesto addition. This time the announcement was made after noon of all times, when they are normally sleeping or exposing themselves. It states - White Supremacist Racists like Herman Cain will not be allowed to use numbers like 9-9-9 to make them look stupid and insane. He must use the New CLYDE Alphabet instead where only g's, double t's and negative -v's are allowed. Also they demand free designer, haute couture prescription sunglasses with free shipping, for those that need them, want them or demand them.

Herman Cain's reply was gtt-vttg-v-v-vgtt.

The Clydes were unimpressed but praised Herman for his nearly instant learning ability and masterful use of the New CLYDE Alphabet but still claims he was an Evil Jew like Whoppie Goldberg before he became a gospel singer in their Messiah's Flash Mob Glee Club. Obama said he supports his treasured Flash Mob in all of their endeavors but warns Americans that you do have to be a totally insane, capital murderer on the Messiah's command to become one and receive everlasting life at the place of his choosing.

He also added; gtt-vttg-v-v-vgtt repeating Herman's claim saying it sounded much better coming from a a real black man even if he was only half black but fully racist.

October 18 2011 at 4:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sororities AND FRATS are much cheaper than on campus dorm room and board or off campus apartment rent and board. But $100,000 for 4 years is pretty much right on at the U of A. My costs are actually $32,000 less since my daughter got her tuition paid for with a scholarship from the State of Arizona for being such a fine student and leader in high school.

But , I would be forced to pay at least $15,000 a year even if she was a Clyde or a dunce's living in someone else's basement since I don't have one. Her mother is a lefty and would force me to pay for our daughter no matter how old, where she lived or even if she married a billionaire even though her daddy didn't' pay for her existence after college - he died before we were married though. Is that the only way out?

October 18 2011 at 2:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to daballofire's comment

My sympathies. My daughter received an academic scholarship, it covers 75% of tuition only (it was not need based) but tuiton is one of the lessor expenses. USF has about 5 different tuitions on the bill, so I don't even know what it covers, but it is about $1300 per semester, it helps a little. To answer your last question, yes it is the only way out. Or commit a crime, and have you and your wife incarcerated. Believe it or not there are scholarships available for children of convicts. Not much for those who work there butt off though, we get to pay for our kids and someone else's (Tax)

October 18 2011 at 3:21 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Oh I forgot, on my last post, the 100,000 figure includes a couple of "required" summer sessions. The cost is also for a public "State" school. Obviously, private schools are astronomically expensive. Don't belive the those stupid calculators. The numbers I am given are facts as of this year. We are not paying for "extras" like new clothes, sororities, clubs or extracurricular activities, we simply can't afford them. College costs for my daughter are more than 10 times what they were when I went 25 years ago. A humble suggestion. Attend a community college for two years and get the general ed junk done there, much cheaper. (l lost this battle perhaps you will have better luck) then transfer to the high priced university for the last two years to get the piece of paper nobody ever looks at. The other option, feed your kid steroids and make a monster football player, then you get everything. (just kidding about the steroids)

October 18 2011 at 2:00 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

$100000, total, 20,000 per year, in state, living in different city, books, dorm, food, tuition and a host of other BS charges for stuff that nobody understands. Going through this pain now. Oh and tuition goes up 15% per year. Just plan on this, and work your butt off. Scholarships are very difficult to get, the FAFSA form which is more painful than doing income tax, reveals all your financial info to the government and every school your kid applies for. No FAFSA no hope in hell of getting any scholarships. If you make more than $80,000 in household income, you will NOT qualify for any need based scholarship. Student loans are terrible deals, but check for yourself. I am using a home equity line of credit and doing my best to pay it quickly. Part time jobs are hard in this economy, my daughter has been applying but no offers yet. If you go out of state, increase costs by at least 50% (30000 per year at least) If you are about to go through this I feel for you, it is very painful, especially when you realize your college grad may not be able to find any work, maybe McDonalds. Seriously, best of luck you will need all the help you can get.

October 18 2011 at 1:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Were these calculators designed by Libtard College Professors? Most college graduates are unemployable after learning from them too, so who would expect these calculators to come up with the right answers?

October 18 2011 at 1:23 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply