A simple calculator for a complex problem: Explaining net price to applicants

Officials hope to 'avoid the possibility of losing prospective students' to price misconceptions

A user-friendly financial-aid calculator originally created for Wellesley College is catching on at other institutions, David Leonhardt reports for the New York Times.

Two years ago, Wellesley economist Phillip Levine designed the calculator to help potential students understand how much financial aid they could expect to receive. It's accurate for about 90% of families.

Background on the tuition calculator

"People know our sticker price—$60,000. They don't realize that the average family receiving financial aid is paying $13,000," says Provost William Dudley.

A 2008 federal law mandated colleges build such calculators—but most are time-consuming and difficult to use. The original Wellesley calculator took 15 to 20 minutes to use and asked "a battery of questions," Leonhardt says.

In contrast, the updated one requires no login and asks about eight questions regarding annual income, family structure, and for other basic financial information. About 42,000 people have used it—compared with just 5,000 who used the original version.

And on Monday, the University of Virginia and Williams College adopted the calculator as well. UVA's version tacks on just one question: is the user a Virginia resident?

The tool may help "avoid the possibility of losing prospective students due to misperceptions about cost," UVA President Teresa Sullivan says.

All three of the schools offer tuition discounts that can bring the net price below other, less selective colleges' sticker prices, Leonhardt writes.

The schools' adoption comes as each works to increase the socioeconomic diversity of their student bodies. Research shows that many middle- and low-income families do not know how much aid they may actually qualify for—and that such students are more likely to succeed at more selective schools (Leonhardt, "The Upshot," New York Times, 9/21).

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