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November 10, 2011

Net price calculator gives students

cost estimates

New tool is federal requirement

Families seeking an estimate of college costs now have a new tool for comparison. A federal mandate requiring colleges to post net price calculators (NPCs) on their web sites took effect Oct. 29.

By answering a short list of questions about the student’s age, living arrangements, residency, family size, income and plans to apply for financial aid, with a few clicks prospective first-time college students can find the average net price of attendance that similar students paid in the prior academic year.

Pitt has posted NPCs for each campus. Each generates estimated tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies and other expenses; an estimate of merit and need-based grant aid, and an estimated net price derived by subtracting the grant aid from the cost of attendance.

“It gives you a rough first approximation,” said Juan J. Manfredi, vice provost for undergraduate studies. “The intention is to provide a good idea to the students.”

The NPC requirement springs from the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 which, in part, obligates institutions that participate in federal student aid programs to post a calculator to provide prospective students an estimated net price based on their individual circumstances. (See Nov. 12, 2009, University Times.)

The NPC provides “a very generic number,” Manfredi said, adding that the legislation aimed to give students an idea of what kind of aid they would get if they applied to a certain college. “While I think the intention is quite good, in practice, financial aid is quite complex,” he said.

“In reality, no school that I know makes a final decision until the application has arrived, because we evaluate each student on their own merits.”

The NPCs provide a generic estimate of financial aid based on income, excluding other forms of financial aid that wouldn’t apply broadly — such as athletic scholarships or donor-sponsored scholarships.

“Those are criteria-determined and therefore we do not include those because that will give the general student the wrong impression,” Manfredi explained.

“This is based on last year’s results. We report the median amount of the award. Not the average, but the median, which is good to know. It means that half of the people got less and the other half got more, of those who applied for financial aid,” he said.

Pitt’s NPCs include disclaimers stating that not all students receive financial aid and noting that in 2009-10, 48 percent of the Pittsburgh campus’s first-time, full-time freshmen received some sort of scholarship or grant such as federal or state grants or merit scholarships, and 24 percent received some form of Pitt need-based grant.

The estimates are far from perfect. Tuition charges change, as does the availability of financial aid. And the demographics of the prior-year group on which the estimates are calculated can vary.

“We say here that this is an estimate; it is based on last year. The way this is computed in the calculator depends a lot on the family structure.

“If you have five people in the family and one or two children going to college, things change. If this year you have different types of families applying, they will get different financial aid because their EFC (estimated family contribution) will be different,” he said.

The EFC is an important number in determining aid. Manfredi said the calculator provides a quick estimate, albeit one less precise than those based on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which all students seeking aid must complete.

Speaking from experience as a parent, Manfredi said, “If you have filled [out] the FAFSA, due March 1, you have to do your taxes really, really early. It takes a full three or four hours of plugging everything in. … It’s a complex document. The idea of the NPC is to give you an approximation without the need to fill [out] the FAFSA.”

He cautioned that families with special tax situations might find the NPC doesn’t cover their circumstances.

“This is giving the median award, so it will be good for the median-type family. If somebody has 10 children, this is probably going to be a lower estimate than what they will get. … If you have a family with one child who makes a lot of money, it’s going to be an overestimate. But in general, for the typical four-person family, it will be a good first approximation.”

Manfredi coordinated Pitt’s NPC development team that included number-crunchers from Institutional Research as well as representatives from the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid and the Provost’s office.

The group spent about a year collecting and verifying the data for Pitt’s NPCs. While some universities developed their own custom NPCs, Manfredi said Pitt’s are based on a federal template developed by the Department of Education.

That template requires institutions to input the price of attendance as well as the median amounts of grant and scholarship aid accepted by first-time, full-time degree- or certificate-seeking students, by EFC range. Users then answer questions to establish their dependency status, estimated cost of attendance and approximate EFC.

“First, we wanted to comply with the requirement. Second, we wanted to make sure we gave the appropriate information to the student,” Manfredi said, adding that the team compared notes with other institutions and looked at competitors’ NPCs in planning its own calculators.

He said NPCs are just one tool families can use in comparing college costs, citing web sites such as, which allows families to compare universities by a number of more detailed parameters.

While Manfredi doesn’t feel the NPC is a good recruiting tool, “It might be useful to some families because they give you at first all the parameters,” he said.

“The basic principle for financial aid for all universities is simply to try to make it possible for the student to attend the institution. The student has been admitted based on merit and qualification. Then the question is what can we do to make sure you can afford it? So, the institution tries to provide whatever is the need that is established,” he said.

Pitt’s campus NPCs can be found at:

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 44 Issue 6

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