In the last few years one of the promising reforms introduced in higher education has been the cost calculators on college websites, which are supposed to “provide individual families with a good idea of what they will have to pay based on their own circumstances.”

The idea is that a potential student could figure out easily what it would really cost him to go to the school he wanted to attend. That way he might be better position to understand real cost and make informed decisions about where to go to college.

It hasn’t really worked out so well. According to an article by Liz Weston at Reuters:

The calculators that Congress has forced schools to provide since 2011 are often hard to find, vary widely in quality and should be used with some caution.

One quarter of the 50 colleges randomly selected by the Institute for College Access and Success ( did not have links to their calculators on the financial aid or costs sections of their sites. Even when the calculator was on a relevant page, it was rarely posted prominently, the survey found.

Five of the 50 schools confused matters further by using some other name for the tool, such as “education cost calculator” or “tuition calculator.”

It does appear to be possible to figure out how to compare schools, but not by using the same method at each school.


In some schools the cost calculator is pretty well disguised.

To find New York University’s calculator, for instance, users must click on three tabs – “Admissions,” “Financial Aid and Scholarships” and finally “Financial Aid at NYU.” At University of Pennsylvania, it takes four clicks to find the net price calculator, which is highlighted in a small blue box.

Harvard College, by contrast, posts its calculator on its financial aid home page, under the headline “You Can Afford Harvard.”

This is telling. While no school is ever going to write “the average students leaves here $60,000 in debt and regretting the decision” underneath the pictures of attractive, multi-ethnic kids have a class discussion on the lawn, there’s making the cost calculator a little hard to find, and then there’s outright hiding it. Most schools don’t want you to think about the money. Some schools really don’t want you to think about the money.

The reality is that Harvard can post a (relatively) prominent message on its admissions and financial aid page saying “you can afford Harvard” because no matter what your financial situation, you actually can afford Harvard (whether or not you can get in is the tough question). The school has enough resources that it can be affordable to anyone. No one has to take on unmanageable debt to go there.

But that’s not true at most schools. NYU (or George Washington University or Syracuse) can’t promise everyone can afford it because it doesn’t have the financial recourses to make that happen. Most Americans can’t afford these schools and have, honestly, no reason to apply to such colleges at all. The debt won’t be manageable.

And that definitely isn’t something those schools want to publicize, because discouraging people from applying would decrease the number of applications, and increase the percentage of applicants who are admitted, and make the schools less attractive.

How deeply the cost calculator is hidden, in fact, might be a good sign of how unaffordable the college really is.

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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