Over the last five years I have completed lots and lots of Net Price Calculator analyses, so I'd like to offer a few general comments about NPC's before you start your own:
1. They're meant to be used. NPC's are free for a reason. Our government wants education consumers like us to have the same access to comparative market data that other consumers have. So use them freely and enjoy.
2. They're easy to find. Every college websites has a search box that's usually located in the upper right-hand corner of its home page. Just type "net price calculator" in the box, and you will be routed to its NPC. Some colleges call their NPC's "financial aid estimators", but you can still get to them by typing "net price calculator" in the search box.
3. They're easy to use. All you need to get started is your tax return from last year and not much else. You will be asked questions about your student and your finances, but the questions are straight forward, and you can click on the "help bubble" if you have any questions. Your first NPC will take you about 30 minutes, but you can reduce that to seven or eight minutes with practice.
4. They don't break. NPC's are programs that are resident in someone else's computer that you will access via your computer. So relax and realize that, no matter how badly you goof up your data entry on your first few tries, you can't break their program. All you have to do is to go back and start over.
5. No NPC's share your personal data. None of them are linked to government agencies, none of them will ask for your SSN's or Tax ID's, and none of them have an outside-accessible memory.
By the way, the lack of NPC memory causes the only pain in this process. There are a number of contractors providing NPC programs, and almost none of them offers a method of saving your input data. This means that you will be inputting the same data a number of times for different schools. The only exception I've found is the NPC program offered by the College Board. That program is used by about 20% of American colleges, and here is a list of all of CB's participating schools:
You can click on any school in that list and you will go directly to the school's NPC program without any further searching. If you then set up a user name and password with CB, you can save your input data. You can then click on any other school and your data will be automatically filled in, reducing your completion time to a few minutes per school and making the CB system the most convenient one available.
Here again is a PDF version of my Apples-to-Apples template. It's simple, it's easy to use, and nothing has been left out. Print it, fill in the blanks from the NPC's you complete, and you are on your way to finding the most affordable colleges for your family. And, as always, a downloadable Word version is at the bottom of this page.
The math I use to analyze college costs and financial aid in my own research and in the Examples I publish is intentionally simple. I use the colleges' Net Price Calculator programs to determine what the schools will charge for Tuition & Fees and Room & Board along with the amount of Total Grants they will offer students from my sample families. Then I plug those numbers into the Apples-to-Apples template which already includes all the other costs for typical students along with a standard amount for Student Work. Finally, I complete each analysis with a calculator, working from left to right, using just addition and subtraction. And you will use the same technique to find your most affordable colleges.
It's really just like a baseball scoreboard, something most of us have seen. The simplest baseball scoreboards have eleven columns. The first column shows the name of the team, and the middle nine columns show the number of runs scored by that team in each of the nine innings. The scorekeeper adds up the numbers in the middle nine columns to get the final score, shown in the eleventh column. But what really matters are the names of the teams, shown in the left-hand column, and the final scores for each team shown in the right-hand column. The inning-by-inning scores only matter because they add up to the final scores.
It's the same with my Apples-to-Apples template. What really matters are the names of the colleges, shown in the left-hand column, and the Remaining Balances - the leftover amount for the parents to pay or for the student or parents to borrow - shown in the right-hand column. The nine middle columns are only relevant because they combine to equal the Remaining Balances. That's the reason the names of the schools and their Remaining Balances are in bold type in the Examples you'll see throughout this site.
That's also the reason that the multi-page Compilations on the Examples page only have headings on the first page. But don't think about that one now. You won't get to the Compilations for another ten minutes, and by that time you'll be such experts you won't even notice.