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How to use a college net price calculator

See how much financial aid won't cover.

While most financial aid offices give a rough estimate of the cost of attendance, few students actually have to pay the full amount. To give you a more realistic number, many schools have a net price calculator on their financial aid websites. Take it with a grain of salt, though — calculators are not as thorough as a real financial aid application.

How to use a college net price calculator in 7 steps

Every school considers different factors when calculating your financial aid award. This can mean that net price calculators vary widely. However, these are the steps that you can generally expect to follow:

Step 1: Find your school’s net price calculator

There’s no universal net price calculator that applies to all colleges. However, you can likely find your school’s net price calculator easily — you can search it on Google or with resources such as the Department of Education’s search engine and CollegeBoard’s directory.

Step 2: Read the instructions

Most net price calculators tell you exactly what you can learn and how you should treat the information before you even get to the actual form. Many also give a brief overview of how financial aid works at the school and instructions for how to use the calculator. Some might require you to check a box or otherwise agree to terms and conditions before using it.

Step 3: Look up unfamiliar terms

You might also need to familiarize yourself with specific terms before you get started. Some schools might have different net price calculators depending on the type of student you are. For example, UCLA has separate calculators for dependent and independent students.

Step 4: Figure out what information you need

Scroll through the form to see what information you need to provide. This might include:

  • Where you plan on living while in school
  • Household income after taxes
  • Number of family members in college
  • Your state of residence
  • Your expected family contribution (EFC)
  • Number of people who depend on your parents for financial support
  • Citizenship status
  • Your high school GPA
  • SAT or ACT scores
  • You and your parent’s marital status

Step 5: Gather information and crunch the numbers

You might need to refer to a few documents to find answers to questions — such as your parent’s income. Typically, your parents’ most recent tax return has all of the information you need. You also might need your SAT and ACT reports if you don’t remember exactly how your scores break down by heart.

Some net price calculators are more detailed than others. If a school asks for your EFC, first figure out how it calculates the amount your family is expected to contribute — most schools rely on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You can use the FASFA4caster to get an idea of your EFC and how much federal aid you might qualify for.

Step 6: Fill out the form

Follow the steps to fill out the form — this should only take a few minutes if you have all of the documents and information you need on hand. Review your answers before submitting the form.

Step 7: Review the results

Most calculators tell you your expected cost of attendance and how much financial aid someone like you would typically receive. Make note of the amount you’re expected to pay after financial aid and use this to compare the cost to other schools.

You might be surprised to find that some more expensive schools actually cost less out of pocket. That’s because some schools offer a more comprehensive need-based financial aid program. Other calculators might also factor in potential merit-based funding.

What is a net price calculator?

A net price calculator is a tool that prospective students can use to find out how much attending a school will actually cost them, after subtracting financial aid. It gives you a total EFC and expected student contribution. It’s a more accurate way of comparing school prices than looking at the total estimated cost of attendance.

Remember, using this calculator is not the same as applying for financial aid, even though it requires similar types of information. You aren’t guaranteed to receive that amount of financial aid when you apply. Generally, the more information you provide, the more accurate your estimate will be.

Where can I find a school’s net price calculator?

You can typically find a school’s net price calculator on their financial aid website. Some schools might refer to it as a financial aid estimator instead of a net price calculator. If you still can’t find it, give it a quick Google search — sometimes schools don’t have the most user-friendly websites.

Why should I use a net price calculator?

Using a net price calculator can help you make a better decision when choosing between two schools and even save you money in the process.

Compare costs more accurately

The main benefit of using a net price calculator is that it gives you a more realistic idea of how much a school costs. Almost nobody except the über-rich is forking over $78,000 a year for college, even if that’s technically what it costs.

Plan for outside financial aid

Unless your family isn’t expected to contribute anything, figuring out your net cost can tell you how much funding you need to cover yourself. Use this to determine what type of outside financial aid to apply to — and how much you might need.

How can I cover the expected family and student contribution?

You have several options to cover your EFC and student contribution, including:

  1. Scholarships. Outside organizations often offer funding based on merit, talent or athletics. Some full-ride scholarships even cover your total cost of attendance.
  2. Grants. Need-based financial aid is also available through organizations outside of your school.
  3. Work-study. Students can often cover their expected contribution by exchanging work for partial tuition payments, usually through the Federal Work-Study Program.
  4. Federal student loans. Federal student loans are often cheaper and come with more flexible repayments than private financing — even most lenders recommend applying for federal loans first.
  5. Private student loans. If you’ve maxed out your federal loan balance or can’t qualify, private student loans can cover the rest of the cost.

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Get prequalified rates from private lenders offering student loans with no origination or prepayment fees.

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Bottom line

A school’s cost of attendance isn’t the most accurate depiction of how much you’ll actually have to pay for college. Using a net price calculator can help you find a school you can afford and plan for any outside financial aid you might need. Read our guide to student loans to find out more about how paying for school works.

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