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How Accurate are the Net Price Figures from Colleges and College Navigator?

Mark Kantrowitz

October 17, 2011

Many public colleges charge different tuition rates for in-state and out-of-state students. The College Navigator web site appears to base the net price figures for public colleges on data for only in-state students, following the statutory requirements. The difference between in-state and out-of-state net price can differ by thousands of dollars.

Since a student can’t be in-state for both Wisconsin and Minnesota, that might account for part of the difference in the net price figures reported for the two colleges. The age of the data may also account for part of the difference. The colleges’ net price calculators were also developed by different software vendors with different approaches to calculating the net price.

There’s also a flaw in the statutory definition of net price, as noted in a recent paper by Mark Kantrowitz. The statutory definition defines net price as the difference between the cost of attendance and average grants, where the average is based only on the number of grant recipients, not all students. This can lead to net price figures that understate the actual bottom-line cost by thousands of dollars.

The net price figures may also be misleading at colleges that practice front-loading of grants. Front-loading of grants involves awarding a greater proportion of grants to first-year students than to returning students. This can make a college look less expensive to first-year students, since the net price will be lower during the freshman year, all else being equal.

A March 2011 paper by The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), Adding It All Up: An Early Look at Net Price Calculators, noted other flaws. In particular, TICAS expressed a concern that some net price calculators were emphasizing a net cost figure more prominently than the net price figure. Colleges define net cost as the difference between the cost of attendance and all financial aid, including loans and student employment in addition to grants. But loans have to be repaid, unlike grants, and as such do not reduce the college costs. This may confuse some families about the true cost of college, interfering with their ability to make an informed decision about college affordability.


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