Look beyond sticker price with these powerful tools

Since 2011, colleges and universities in the United States have been required to provide a Net Price Calculator (NPC) to help prospective students estimate the total cost of attending. We hope that this article will help you better understand how to use these valuable tools, and how to interpret the results.

Our source of information about the NPC requirement is The National Center for Education Statistics. Knowledge of how Net Price Calculators are actually implemented and advice about how to use them comes from seven years of designing and developing NPCs, working closely with college financial aid offices, and extensive review of the different types of NPCs available.


  1. Who are NPCs for?
  2. What is Net Price?
  3. Merit Scholarships and the NPC
  4. Types of NPCs
  5. Career Colleges and the NPC
  6. How to compare NPC results

Who are NPCs for?

Colleges are required to provide net price estimation for first-time, full-time undergraduate students. That means students who have never attended college before, and who plan to take a full-time course load. Some colleges have chosen to provide calculators for other populations, but if you are planning to enroll as a part-time, undergraduate transfer, or graduate student and the NPC does not specifically ask you about that, it is safe to assume that the results are not meant for you.

What is Net Price?

When you start to think about attending college, you might start by looking up the "sticker price" of the colleges that interest you. You can look up annual tuition, fees, on campus room and board. That total can be a pretty intimidating number. There is a good chance you won't end up paying that full price, and the reason for NPCs is to give you an idea of what that final bottom line might look like.

According to the Department of Education's definition, the Net Price of attending college is calculated this way:

Let’s look at each of these elements more closely. "Cost of Attendance" is made up of direct costs and indirect costs.

Direct Costs: These include anything you pay directly to the college. Tuition and fees are always direct costs. Room and board may be direct costs, if you are planning to live on campus. Books and supplies may be considered direct or indirect costs, depending on how these items are purchased by students at your college. Colleges know these costs, so the results for these costs reported by NPCs are generally accurate. It is important to notice, though, which year's costs are used in the NPC. A college's NPC should tell you which academic year it is based on.

Indirect Costs: These are the costs associated with life as a student, which are not paid directly to the college. Unless you are living in a dorm, the costs of your housing and food are part of indirect costs. Indirect costs also include transportation (the cost of going to and from college, whether this means flying across the country once per semester or driving across town every day), and "personal expenses" (miscellaneous other things you need to buy while you are a student, like shampoo and toothbrushes). Colleges are required to come up with estimates of those costs, which are used in calculating financial aid eligibility. Generally, they have different estimates for students paying for off campus housing and those commuting from their parents' homes. It is important to know that these estimates are what you see in the Net Price Calculator, and they will probably not reflect your exact costs. It is also important just to be aware that these costs are included. If you plan to attend college as a commuter student in your hometown, you may not be thinking of your cost of living as part of your educational costs. Removing the indirect costs from the net price will show you an amount closer to the actual bill you will receive from the college.

Grants and Scholarships: Using the information you enter, the NPC estimates your eligibility for the following types of aid: merit-based scholarships offered by the college, need-based grants offered by the college, federal and state need-based grants. You may see individual line items for specific awards, or you may just see a single "grants and scholarships" line. Regardless of how the information is presented, all of these types of awards are considered. If you don't see anything about grant or scholarship aid in the results, the NPC has estimated that based on your information you would not be eligible for any. See some important information about merit scholarships below.

Not Included: It is just as important to know what is not part of Net Price. The financial aid included in Net Price is only the type that you don't have to pay back. Some NPCs may show you information about your eligibility for Federal Student Loans, but they will not be included in the Net Price bottom line. If you are a veteran or on active military duty, the NPC will also not reflect your veterans' or military benefits in the Net Price, although some colleges do offer NPCs that estimate benefits and provide good information about how they impact total affordability. Work-study is also not included in Net Price. Finally, scholarships received from organizations other than your college or the state or federal government will not be included. If you are receiving a private scholarship, don't assume you can just add that to the financial aid calculated by the NPC. Many colleges take private scholarships into account when awarding their own grants and scholarships.

Learn about types of NPCs on the next page, or scroll down to read an important note about merit scholarships.


If you are considering a college that offers merit-based scholarships (you can probably tell this from the college's website), pay special attention to whether the NPC asks questions about academic merit. If the scholarships are based on high school GPA and SAT or ACT scores, and the NPC does not ask about these, the Net Price results will be based on median or average merit. This means awards will be underestimated for students with higher scores and overestimated for students with lower scores. Don't make the mistake of looking up your merit eligibility and adding it to the NPC Grants and Scholarships results. Remember that some merit-based aid is already included.

The good news is many colleges provide NPCs that do ask the questions necessary to calculate merit-based scholarships. Be sure to answer these questions as accurately as possible for the best estimate of your scholarship eligibility.

Continue to learn about types of NPCs