Net Price Calculator programs are wonderful tools, but they have four minor problems that limited their accuracy and their usefulness. Here are the problems and my solutions:
1. The estimates colleges use for "soft costs", meaning those costs not fixed by the school, vary widely from school to school while those costs themselves should be pretty much the same everywhere. So I developed estimates for them that I apply to every school: $1,150 per year for "Books & Supplies" and $1,350 per year - meaning $150 per month - for "Personal Expenses."
2. "Travel Costs" listed in NPC results also vary widely from school to school, even for schools in the same city, and some well known colleges don't show any amount at all. So, I use a standard value of $1,000 for "Travel Costs" in all my Examples and in my Apples-to-Apples template. It's a good value for comparison purposes, and $1,000 has been the actual cost of four one-way tickets between Seattle and Boston for our kids each year. And, if you want to make your comparisons more exact, travel costs from your area are easy to find online.
3. NPC programs typically show loans as financial aid, but I don't. I only show cash grants in the "Total Grants" column, and I never show any loans as financial aid. Loans really aren't financial aid, they are a costly way to defer the payment of a present cost to a future time. And, since some colleges are loan-free, and some loan-inclusive schools make such generous financial aid offers they don't require loans, listing loans in Total Grants would make financial aid comparisons invalid. In addition, the same loan programs are available pretty much everywhere, and each family will make its own decision on whether loans are necessary to pay its Remaining Balance at a particular school.
4. All colleges expect work-capable students to work, but the amounts they show for "Student Work" in their NPC's vary widely. I chose $5,000 per year for my typical value. It represents $1,000 per month for a 25 hour per week summer job and $1,000 per semester for an 8 hour per week Work Study job with both jobs paying $10 per hour.
I call my system "Apples-to-Apples," and it has the same effect as installing a new set of shocks or struts on an old car. It takes the bounce out of the ride by eliminating the unnecessary irregularity in estimated costs between college NPC's, allowing students and parents to make valid comparisons between schools, especially among more generous schools.
Here's the link to an Apples-to-Apples template to help with your search. It is written in Word so you can easily fill in the blanks, add rows, or even change my standard values to fit your student.
Take a close look at that form and you will see that you will only use three numbers from the actual NPC results: the amount of "Tuition & Fees", the amount of "Room & Board", and the amount of "Total Grants." The remaining data fields are already filled in. So you complete your analysis for each school by doing the simple addition and subtraction from left to right on your calculator. Since you will input your family's unique financial data, your NPC results will not only be accurate, they will be unique to you and your family.
Be alert, by the way, when reading NPC results. I've found that the more generous schools have clearer NPC results, and I've also found that some schools minimize the significance - or even the existence - of loans in their results. A current and persistent example of hiding-the-loans is the NPC of the University of California at Los Angeles. I have never seen UCLA show loans as a separate line item as Berkeley does, but it includes student and parent loans as "Other Aid" in its "Estimated Award Letter." Some "Award", some "Other Aid."
However, families who use our Apples-to-Apples method of analyzing NPC results will see right through the fog in NPC's like that one. Remember that, using our Apples-to-Apples method, we look for only three numbers in the NPC results from any college - the amount of Tuition & Fees, the amount of Room & Board, and the amount of Total Grants - and we ignore all the other data. Then we plug those relevant numbers into the Apples-to-Apples template included in this page, and we do the easy addition and subtraction from left to right. That results in the Remaining Balance, the amount that's left for Mom and Dad to pay or for the student and parents to borrow.
On a happier topic, a number of colleges now allow the users of their Net Price Calculators to input their own Expected Family Contributions, their "EFC's", to avoid answering repetitive questions about their family's finances. An EFC is the final product of filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance, the "FAFSA." Filling out the FAFSA isn't very painful, but it's formal. By this I mean that the actual FAFSA records your names and Social Security Numbers, it crosslinks to your IRS tax data, and it allows you only a limited number of modifications before it objects. A convenient, accurate, and effective alternative is the College Board's EFC Calculator. It's free, it's fast, and it allows you to make experiments concerning your family's future finances. Here's the link:
CB's EFC Calculator allows you to choose either the Federal Methodology, the Institutional Methodology, or both when getting your results. Choose "both", and write them both down, but use the Federal Methodology in NPC's. Remember also that EFC's include both the expected contributions of the parents and of their child. However, the FAFSA's calculation of expected student earnings using the more common Federal Methodology is so small - about $100 per year - that Moms and Dads should consider the EFC to really be an estimate of their contribution only.
Some college websites offer EFC estimator programs within their NPC programs which are even quicker and easier than the College Board's EFC Calculator while being absolutely anonymous, but their accuracy varies a lot. This year I've found the EFC Estimator included on the University of Washington's NPC webpage to be extremely simple, completely anonymous, and very accurate. Here's the link: