No one really knows what college really costs. And despite some efforts to figure this out, unless a student is from a very rich family, no one really knows how much his family is going to have to actually pay for college. This might change soon. According to an article by Lynn O’Shaughnessy at CBS Money Watch:

Higher-ed experts, however, are hoping that college cost confusion might not last too much longer. Why? Because colleges are facing a deadline to install calculators on their websites that will provide individual families with a good idea of what they will have to pay based on their own circumstances.

The federal government is requiring colleges to install so-called net price calculators on their web sites no later than October 2011. Not all net price calculators, however, will necessarily be worth using. At least that’s the conclusion I’ve drawn after asking experts about the calculator requirement.

That’s because the net price calculators seem to be based on the government’s calculator template released last year. The problem is that the template is too simple and generic to present a true picture of the amount families will actually have to pay. In April the Association for Institutional Research explained that the government’s template doesn’t really work very well when considering large schools that frequently attempt to attract students with merit scholarships. As O’Shaughnessy points out, that’s most private colleges in the United States.

In response, a few colleges have simply ignored the calculator template and installed their own financial aid calculators on their websites. [Image via]

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer