But How Much Will it Cost?

According to a guest post by Helen Nunn, director of financial aid at Susquehanna University, potential students should be wary of the net price calculator, a new tool to help families figure out how much they’ll have to pay for college.

As she explains in a piece she wrote for the in the Washington Post:

On the face of it, I understand why families would be taken in by the idea of the newly required Net Price Calculator (NPC). Anything that could help you narrow your list of schools to those you can afford, and could make it simple to get an answer to that question, would be a welcome tool. And anything I can do on the Internet without interacting with pesky people and their prying questions would be a relief, too. Right?

The whole process of obtaining financial aid can be a daunting and mysterious one, and that is largely due to its complexity. By working so hard to simplify things, we lose any nuance or ability to deal with folks’ individual circumstances. If you complete a couple of NPCs for different schools, will that be the way you decide whether it’s worth pursuing admission and aid at a school?

In our effort to make sure that we are providing the fairest and most accurate aid decisions for families at our institution, not only do we collect significantly more information than is required by the NPC, we also collect prior-year federal tax returns to shore up the data. Do you have any idea how often we have to make changes to families’ reported data when we make the comparison? The answer is about 98 percent of the time. If you extrapolate that ratio to the way people will enter their data on the NPC, a 98 percent error rate (of varying degrees and outcomes, of course) means that the results of the NPC will reflect at least that error rate.

This perspective is probably reflective of the general way colleges feel about pricing. Financial aid is some complicated, nuanced art that should be kept firmly in the hands of the “experts” on college campuses.

There’s some truth to this, no doubt; as we’ve seen from WebMD, people have a tendency to use “plug this information into the program” calculations inappropriately. It allows for lazy thinking and inappropriate assumptions.

Nevertheless, the fact that financial aid programs are too nuanced for the average family to understand is a problem to correct, not an explanation.

If the program can’t accurately capture how much real families will pay, fix the program. Families deserve to know this information; they deserve to know if they can afford to attend a school.

Daniel Luzer

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