I. GETTING THE MOST OUT OF NET PRICE CALCULATORS In this site you will learn how to use NPC's effectively, resolving the minor issues that limit their efficiency, and you're going to become experts in using NPC's right here in the next hour. You will also review examples of NPC results based on the financial data of my two sample families, one at the middle and one at the lower income level, for about 125 American colleges. But your results will be based on your family's own finances, and they will be unique to your family. It will be a fun process of discovery for you, and your NPC results will help you focus your college search on realistic alternatives that meet your individual family's needs. I'm certain you will find your NPC results surprising, enlightening, and maybe even life changing. However, your results will depend on your effort. Your results are truly up to you. To paraphrase Aristotle, "If you do the reps, you'll get the rewards." And the reps themselves are easy. In fact, they are as easy as reading the instructions at the top of the next form and filling in the blanks. This is a PDF version of the form I use for all my published analyses, and this is a great time to get used to it. The layout is the same as a baseball scoreboard, with the name of the school on the left and its final score on the right, and the only math you'll use is easier than on a 1040EZ. Also, unlike typical NPC results, my "Apples-to-Apples" method uses standard dollar amounts for common factors. This both stabilizes and enhances the accuracy of NPC results, especially for more generous colleges, allowing you and your family to make more valid comparisons. In addition to this PDF, I have included a Word version of this form for your convenience at the bottom of all the pages of this website.
Looking at the "Apples-to-Apples Template", you'll notice that standard values are already filled in for Books & Supplies, Personal Expenses, Travel Costs, and Student Work. So, you'll only need three amounts from the individual college's NPC: the amount it charges for Tuition & Fees, the amount it charges for Room & Board, and the amount it will provide your child in Total Grants. Then you just do the addition and subtraction from left to right. Also, for your convenience, here is an NPC Data Sheet you and your family can use when filling out NPC's. It's ready for you and your family to fill in your answers to all the questions I was asked by all 125 colleges I analyzed this year. It's thorough, but it will help keep all your family members who fill out your NPC's "singing from the same sheet of music." It's a PDF, but there's a Word version at the bottom of this and every other page of this website.
II. ACG METHODOLOGY To assure accuracy and consistency in my comparisons, I have established two sample families, one with an income of $60,000 per year, one with an income of $40,000 per year. My specific 2017/2018 NPC input data for both families are in the table below. Since your NPC results will be unique to your family, your results will not be the same as the results for my sample families. Also, all the tables you'll see in this website follow the same pattern, with the names of the colleges on the left, the costs and aid for those schools in the middle, and the "Remaining Balance" - what's left for parents to pay or for students and parents to borrow - on the right. The "Student Work" amount of $5,000 assumes a 25 hour per week summer job and an 8 hour per week Work Study job during the school year with both paying $10 per hour. The schools are ranked by the generosity of their financial aid programs at the given income level, with the most generous schools at the top and the least generous schools at the bottom. Finally, I never include any loans as financial aid anywhere in this site. Loans really aren't financial aid, loans are a way to defer the payment of a present cost to a later time while paying an interest fee to cover the amount of delay. So, all the financial aid you will see in this website is absolutely loan-free. Here's a table containing the input data I used for my middle and lower income sample families in all the 2017/2018 Compilations and Comparisons in this site:
III. CLARITY VERSUS DECEPTION Plenty of colleges have the integrity to present honest and straightforward NPC results, but some schools don't. And those that don't can lure you into a false expectation of generous financial aid for your child, and that false expectation can have disastrous consequences for your child's whole college search. In this section you will see that using my "Apples-to-Apples" method helps you avoid NPC deception in two ways. Of course, it helps you sift out schools that won't be affordable for your family, but it also helps you see through the intentional fog that enshrouds the NPC results of some schools so you can find the truth inside. Our examples will be two schools from the same university system, and we will analyze their costs and aid for out-of-state applicants. Each of these schools offers reasonably generous financial aid to applicants from its home state, but the aid they offer out-of-state applicants can be fairly described as "weak and weaker." But I didn't choose these schools for the amount of their aid but for their presentations of the aid that they offer. Because one of these schools has straightforward NPC results, and one has the opposite. You will demonstrate the difference - you're about to do your first two NPCs! - by using the input data for my middle income sample family to fill in the blanks in their NPCs. Then you're going to fill the numbers we need from their NPCs - meaning their Tuition & Fees, Room & Board, and Total Grants - into the Word version of my Apples-to-Apples template at the bottom of the page. Finally, we'll consider the integrity of each school's NPC results, and how you can distill the facts you need from every school's NPC, whether it has straightforward NPC results or not. Let's start by prepping an Apples-to-Apples template. A Word version of it is at the bottom of this page and every other page in this site. Left-click the "Download File" instruction below the file name, and then left-click "Open" to open the template on your computer. You'll see that there are eight rows on that page, allowing you to fill in cost and aid data from eight colleges. Now, in the first column of the top row type "BERKELEY" for the college name, and then type "UCLA" for the college name in the row below. Leave the template alone for the time being, and come back to this page in your browser. Next, we need to find the Net Price Calculator programs for each of the schools on their websites. Let's start with the University of California at Berkeley, so open a new tab in your browser and type "berkeley.edu" in the search box. Once your on Berkeley's website, type "net price calculator" in the search box in the upper right corner of its homepage. A Google search list will pop up, choose the first entry, and you will arrive in Berkeley's NPC. Now, let's open the Net Price Calculator for the University of California at Los Angeles. So, open another new tab on your browser and type "ucla.edu" in the search box. Once you're on the UCLA website, type "net price calculator" in the search box in the upper right corner of its Homepage, hit "enter", choose the first alternative in the Google search that pops up, and you should land on UCLA's NPC. Then come back here, and we'll get to work. We're going to start with Berkeley's NPC, so find that tab and scroll down to the place where you choose the right type of NPC for your student. Since the college applicants in my sample families are high school seniors who live with their parents and who will start college the following fall, left-click on "(Fall or Spring) Dependent Net Price Calculator." I'm going to give you the answers to fill in the blanks, and you'll see just how easy it is to use NPCs. And, by the way, we'll shift from our sample family to your family's data when you get to my Bookends page.
Parent's Marital Status = "Married" Parents' Income (Adjusted Gross Income, With No Dollar Signs or Commas) = "60000" Parents' Income Earned By = "Both Parents" Parents' Income Taxes Paid = "1942" Parents' Other Income (Any Income Not Included in Adjusted Gross Income) = "0" Parents' Assets (Cash and Investments, But Not Including Home Equity or Retirement Programs) = "4000" Student's Income = "1000" Student's Income Taxes Paid = "0" Student's Other Income = "0" Student's Assets (Cash and Investments) = "500" Number in Household (Dad, Mom & 2 Kids) = "4" Number in College (Applicant Only) = "1" State of Residence = "Washington" Housing = "On Campus"
Then, left-click the blue "Estimate Financial Aid" button, and our middle income sample family's NPC results for Berkeley will pop up immediately. We'll come back to those results in a couple of minutes.
Now, let's complete UCLA's NPC for my middle income sample family. The layout and questions are the same, so just choose the "Dependent Calculator" - even though it says "I am a California resident...", you'll see that it's meant for everyone - and let's get to work. UCLA begins by asking one extra question, "Student Status." So, left-click "Freshman" as your answer, fill in the remaining answers as above, and left-click the "Estimate Financial Aid" button to get UCLA's NPC results. We're going to go through the NPC results of both schools, using the Apples-to-Apples method to make sense of their results. Remember that the "soft costs" - the Books & Supplies, Personal Expenses, and Travel Costs - are already filled in as is the value of Student Work. So, all you need from each college's NPC is its Tuition & Fees, Room & Board, and Total Grants. Let's analyze Berkeley's results first, so please refer back to that tab in your browser. The NPC's for schools in the University of California system do not have a single line item for non-resident tuition, so we'll find our applicant's total Tuition & Fees by adding the $17,804 shown for "Tuition and Fees" to the $29,754 shown for "Non-Resident Tuition" for a total of $47,558 which we'll record in the Tuition & Fees blank on the template. Next, Berkeley charges $19,422 for Room & Board, and we'll fill that number into the template. The last number we need from Berkeley's NPC results is the amount of Total Grants. Berkeley shows that amount as zero in its NPC results, but I know from experience that this is a persistent error in Berkeley's NPC, because an American family with an income of $60,000 per year will qualify for some amount of Pell Grant paid to the school by the United States for that student. So, let's fill $1,845 into that slot, which was the most usual Pell Grant estimate returned in the 123 other schools I analyzed this year using the same input data. Now, just do the simple addition and subtraction from left to right on the template, and the result should be a Stabilized Net Cost for this sample family of $63,635. Now, we'll plug UCLA's results into our Apples-to-Apples template. Here, we'll have to strictly follow our Apples-to-Apples system to avoid getting bit by the deception lurking in UCLA's NPC results. Again, to get the total amount of their Tuition & Fees we'll need to add UCLA's "University Fees" of $13,225 to its "Non-Resident Tuition" of $29,754 for a total of $42,979 which we'll fill in our Tuition & Fees blank. Next, we'll fill in their amount for Room & Board which is $15,816. Then, we'll need to find the amount of Total Grants, and we will type UCLA's "Grant Award" amount of $20,753 in that blank, and we will ignore the amount of UCLA's "Other Aid" as discussed in the next paragraph below. Finally, we'll turn the crank, doing our addition and subtraction from left to right, to get UCLA's Stabilized Net Cost for this sample family of $36,542. Your final Apples-to-Apples results for both schools should look just like this:
In analyzing both of these NPC results, let's first note that each of them is remarkably easy to use. But more importantly, both schools include an accurate estimate of my sample family's Expected Family Contribution - its EFC - within their Net Price Calculator results, and Berkeley's EFC estimate is really exceptional. In my analyses, I always use the College Board's EFC estimator which I have found to be more work, but highly reliable. This year's estimate for my middle income sample family from CB was $4,326 while the Berkeley EFC estimates were $4,322 - a difference of less than one-tenth of one percent. That's close, so I'll encourage you to write down and save your own EFC estimate from Berkeley as we work through my Bookends page. But what about the relative levels of honesty and integrity as reflected in the schools' own NPC results? Remember that Berkeley clearly stated its estimates of the huge student and parent loans required for our non-resident sample family's student to study there. Berkeley, however, didn't disclose something it obviously knew, that a quarter of a million dollars in indebtedness to fund one bachelors degree is perfectly obscene and absolutely unnecessary. But Berkeley did present the facts as facts, although without comment. UCLA, however, hid the cards. In fact, if you carefully review UCLA's NPC results, you will not find the word "loan" on that page at all. But, if you slide your cursor over "Other Aid", a bubble will pop up, and you'll see UCLA's "Other Aid" of $43,678 only includes Work Study earnings along with student and parent loans. If we deduct $2,000 as a realistic amount of earnings at a Work Study job during the school year, we're left with $41,678 per year in student and parent loans, totaling $166,712 in loans over four years. Whew! Some "Other Aid", right? So, how can you Moms and Dads protect your kids from deceptive NPC results? First, you should strictly follow the Apples-to-Apples method as we did above. But there's a government-required three-line equation buried in all NPC results that will help you check your work. That equation is this: Total Cost of Attendance - Total Grants = Net Cost. The Total Cost of Attendance must include the college's actual hard costs along with its estimate of a typical applicant's soft costs, Total Grants can never include any loans (where have you heard that one before?), and the difference between them, meaning Total Cost minus Total Grants, is its estimate of your Net Cost at that school. Now, let's look for that equation on the UCLA NPC results. It's toward the bottom of their data stack, and it shows UCLA's Estimated Net Cost to be $43,678. This amount is exactly the same amount as it shows for "Other Aid", meaning that this $43,678 isn't aid at all, and for UCLA to call that $43,678 "Other Aid" is clearly deceptive.
IV. NPC's AND EFC's Congress required Net Price Calculator programs on college websites to help parents and students sift their affordable from their non-affordable colleges early in their college searches. NPC results are required to be 97% accurate, and NPC's are a great search tool, but they are not applications for financial aid at those colleges. Your actual financial aid applications will come later, usually in January or February, after your students have decided where to apply, and after they have filed their actual applications with those schools. Each of the schools where your children apply will have different requirements for their own financial aid applications, but it's likely that they will all use the results of another application that you'll fill out online for the US Department of Education. It's called the Free Application for Federal Student Assistance or FAFSA. Since the FAFSA is based on your total income from the previous year, it's another item intended for January and February. By the way, the Department of Education has recently established procedures that allow early FAFSA filing based on your income from the previous year, but that's really the answer to the question nobody asked. When you are in the pre-application phase of your college search, before you decide where to actually apply, you're going to sift through a lot of schools, and early filing of your FAFSA won't help you at all. Why? A. The FAFSA is free, but it's complex. And it's not anonymous - meaning it requires names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and it links to the IRS. So, many families save the FAFSA for when it's really needed. Also, the only thing the FAFSA gives you is your Expected Family Contribution, your "EFC", which is the government's estimate of what your family can afford to lay out in cash - not loans - that year for that child's education. But almost all colleges include a reasonably accurate estimate of your EFC in their NPC results anyway, like it or not. In fact, if you go back to the NPC results for Berkeley and UCLA, you'll find highly accurate EFC estimates for my middle income sample family at the top of the NPC results for each school. B. Although your Net Price Calculator results at each school where your kids decide to apply should be within 3% of the actual financial aid offers at each college where they are ultimately accepted, your Expected Family Contribution does not have to correlate with your actual aid offers at all. Consider this: I have Compilations posted on my Results page listing NPC results for my sample families at 124 schools at both a middle and a lower income level. At each income level the Expected Family Contribution is exactly the same for those families at each of those schools. But the Remaining Balances - the bottomline amounts for parents to pay or for the students and parents to borrow - vary among those 125 schools from nothing at all per year to over $50,000 per year. And my calculations of Expected Annual Loans at those income levels and at those schools also vary from nothing at all to over $50,000 per year. So, your NPC results - meaning your expected aid - will correlate directly with your actual aid offers, but those numbers and your EFC will only jive at your more generous college choices.
Copyright 2020, Mark Warns, All Rights Reserved
Here again are a Word version of my Apple-to-Apples template for your own college cost comparisons along with a Word version of my blank data input pages that you can download for use by your own family: