Figuring Out How Much Financial Aid You’ll Get

Understanding Financial Aid

It used to be that the only way you could figure out how much financial aid you’ll get was by being accepted to a college and submitting the FAFSA. However, now colleges have Net Price Calculators (NPC) and you can get an estimate of how much money you’ll get before you even submit an application fee.

The federal government mandated colleges provide NPCs starting in 2011. Since they haven’t been around very long, they are definitely a work in progress. Yet, even with the limitations, they represent a much needed information opportunity for families trying to figure out how much they’re going to have to pay for college.

Why NPCs are a Good Thing

Now we know that some of you are thinking, “wait a minute, these NPCs sound like I’m going to have to go to each college website to find out how much I’m going to have to pay. Exactly, how many colleges are there?”

Ok, there are over 1,500 four-year colleges with 500 or more full-time undergraduates. And guess what, each of these 1,500 plus colleges sets its own policy for awarding their own institutional grants. We’re not talking about federal loans or Pell Grants here but rather free money from the college in the form of scholarships and grants. So yes, each needs its own NPC because they have their own formula.

But that doesn’t mean you have to visit every college and re-enter your financial information over and over again. The website College Abacus allows users to enter their financial information once and then submits it to three colleges at once. It then formats the results so that you can easily compare the different awards.

Great idea, right? The problem is that not all colleges allow College Abacus to access their NPCs. For some reason, they don’t like the idea of families being able to easily compare potential financial aid awards.

What You Need to Watch Out For

There are several problems with Net Price Calculators. A major issue is that there isn’t a standard format for displaying the results. They have to provide the users with an actual average net price which does not include loans or work-study. Yet, many also list another number that is some variation of total net cost. This is where they’ll include things like student loans, private loans, or PLUS loans. By including these, they will list the total net cost as being 0 to the student. Some will also make this number more prominent than the average net cost result.

Another problem is the quality of the NPC’s data. Many colleges use the free template provided by the federal government. This NPC doesn’t ask for as much detailed financial information as the others. Income is based on general categories with the highest topping out at $110,000 or more. That means that families at the higher income ranges aren’t likely to get an accurate estimate of their potential financial aid.

Furthermore, not all NPCs, including the federal calculator, estimates potential merit scholarships based on academic qualifications. As you start using NPCs, you’ll find some ask for test scores, GPA, or class rank and include estimated academic awards. These can be very useful in helping to decide wither or not to retake the SAT or ACT. By just changing your test scores, you can find out how much your award will change. (Baylor example)

Remember, NPCs are estimates, not promises. But they provide you with a legitimate starting point in figuring out how much you’ll pay for college. And if the estimate doesn’t seem to accurately reflect your financial situation, you know that you’ll need to contact the college to find out more. Good or bad, don’t you think it’s better to know if they consider your specific circumstances before you apply?

 

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