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Originally published Monday, June 27, 2011 at 8:30 AM

College price calculators may not paint complete picture

By the end of October, colleges and universities will provide an easier way to compare attendance costs.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

quotes "But there is a fear that students may be scared away if the questions are too... Read more

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When the annual college search season gets under way this fall, parents and students will have a new tool at their disposal.

By the end of October, the nation's colleges and universities will be offering net price calculators on their websites, providing an easier way to compare attendance costs from one school to the next. At least, that's the goal of the federal law requiring the calculators.

Most higher education experts like the idea behind the new rule, which should give students and families a better idea of college costs much earlier in the game. But they also see potential for problems with the fledgling rule.

Among the biggest issues is the balancing of simplicity versus accuracy.

The calculator works by collecting information through a series of on-screen questions about the student's financial and academic background. The more questions it asks, the more accurate the results. But there is a fear that students may be scared away if the questions are too complex or numerous.

There also are concerns about using year-old financial information that doesn't take tuition and other price increases into account. And the possibility that some schools could use the devices as misleading marketing tools.

"Institutions can game these a little bit to work in their favor, as long as they comply with specific regulations. There's lots of wiggle room," said Richard Hesel, an education consultant with Baltimore-based Art & Science Group.

By law, the calculators are supposed to add up a laundry list of college costs — including tuition, fees, books, housing and food — and then subtract grants and scholarships a student is likely to receive. What's left is the net price.

That's just the sort of thing that could have come in handy for Brianna Petersen of Monett, Mo., who will be heading to the University of Missouri-Columbia in the fall. She chose Mizzou from a pool of four schools, with price being one of her biggest concerns. While it was easy to nail down the basics — tuition and room and board — she said it was much more difficult to figure out various fees and how much she would get from scholarship and financial aid.

Taking away some of the murkiness was the fact that she has helped her older brother navigate his way to Missouri State University. So she was prepared for some of the sticker shock.

"For kids who don't have an older sibling in school, it would be a complete slap in the face," Petersen said.

It's still unclear, though, whether Petersen would have had an easier time in the era of net price calculators.

A lot of that uncertainty comes from the fact that schools have a great deal of leeway in how they approach the calculators.

Some will choose the simplest approach and use a template provided by the federal government. But most seem unwilling to do so and are building their own, or paying someone else to do it. The simple federal template, they say, doesn't collect enough data to be accurate.

In some ways, the calculators threaten to change the way students evaluate prospective schools. The way it works now, students don't get a firm idea of cost until they get their financial aid award letters in the spring. Essentially, they learn the price only after deciding to buy.

Admissions and financial aid officials say they're happy to see students get better information earlier. But there's a downside, particularly in the case of students who might be eligible for more aid or lower tuition than can be reflected in a calculator.

"We may look a lot more expensive than we really are," said Alan Byrd, admissions director at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

What's missing is the direct student-to-school contact that allows an institution a chance to take a closer look at individual needs.

At Washington University, for example, financial aid award letters are sent out in March, giving students a month to work with the school's counselors. It's not uncommon for aid packages to be adjusted once special circumstances — a parent losing a job, for example — are taken into account, said Bill Witbrodt, director of Student Financial Services.

Those are the sorts of things that might not be reflected in the numbers spit out by a calculator.

"Our challenge is to present the net price calculator in a way that lets folks know we haven't taken those things into consideration," Witbrodt said.

Creating even more hand-wringing is the likelihood that some schools will end up using the calculators as marketing tools — some less honestly than others.

Federal rules offer a shortlist of things that must be included on every calculator, with net price being the most important. Outside of that, schools are relatively free to do what they please with the tools.

"There's no standard as to how the information is displayed or how it is characterized," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org. "It may lead to confusion."

It's unclear whether that can be resolved without revisions to the law — something many experts believe will happen sooner rather than later. They argue that a more uniform approach to the calculators would help students make accurate side-by-side comparisons of schools.

In the meantime, everyone is watching and wondering what sort of impact calculators will have on applications and college decisions.

Like many of his peers, Jim Brooks doubts price will be given much more weight on students' college checklists. The financial aid director at the University of Missouri-Columbia is optimistic that other factors — including a school's reputation and the quality of its programs — will continue to play key roles.

"I would hope price won't be the only thing families look at," he said.

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