Playing Hide and Seek With Net Price Calculators

Are colleges and universities playing hide and seek with their net price calculators?
As I’ve mentioned in the previous posts below, net price calculators can be extremely valuable tools for families wondering what a specific college will cost their families. I don’t think anyone should be applying to schools unless they have used these college cost calculators in advance.
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Now that all schools must have net price calculators installed on their sites, I decided to see how easy or hard it would be to find these tools on eight college websites. I used the US News & World Report’s Ultimate College Guide to pick eight random schools while I had my eyes closed. I was disappointed that locating many of the calculators proved to be so difficult! At one college website, I never did find it.
I had naively assumed that colleges would put the link to their net price calculator in a prominent spot on their admission and financial aid pages. I had envisioned that visitors to these pages would be drawn to a large icon that would direct them to the calculator.

Net Price Calculator Goose Chase

Here is what I found instead:

Columbia University, New York City

I thought I’d see the Columbia University’s net price calculator on its student financial services page, but no such luck. I then poked around on the Office of Undergraduate Aid & Educational Financing page and was about to give up when I spotted a tiny link at the very bottom of the page. Columbia didn’t even bother to give visitors a one-sentence description of the calculator.

Ouchita Baptist University, Arkadelphia, ARK

I thought I had found Ouchita Baptist University’s calculator, but it was actually a link to a merit aid calculator. When I typed net price calculator into the university’s search box,  I was directed to a parent email newsletter that was dated April and July 2011! (See below). It took awhile but I eventually discovered Ouchita Baptist’s net price calculator.

University of Denver

Once I found the financial aid page for this school, the University of Denver’s net price calculator was easy to spot. DU did the absolute best job of making its net price calculator stand out by designing a helpful icon for it. I would hope other colleges would try something similar.

University of Wisconsin Platteville

This is one of the ugliest college websites that I’ve ever seen, but that wouldn’t have mattered if I could have found the university’s net price calculator! On the University of Wisconsin Platteville’s financial aid site, I found an Award Estimator and at first I was wondering if the university was simply using a different name for its calculator, but it wasn’t asking the sort of questions that a net price calculator requires. Strange indeed.
I never did find the university’s net price calculator. I laughed when I typed net price calculator into the university’s search engine and got four unrelated listings including a university help-wanted notice for a cement concrete technician and contact information about a sewing and quilting expo. Wow!

Linfield College, McMinnville, OR

I found Linfield College’s  net price calculator in a listing of financial aid links in a box. That was fairly typical. I wish the school would swipe the University of Denver’s icon.

Salem College, Winston-Salem, NC

I wouldn’t have found  Salem College’s net price calculator if I hadn’t clicked on the more link. (See below.) I’m wondering how many people would do that.  Using the Firefox browser, I couldn’t find the calculator link at all, but I discovered it when I switched to Safari.

Villanova University, Philadelphia

I found Villanova’s net price calculator fairly easily, but  the link was pushed towards the bottom of 19 links!  Surely Villanova could display the the net price calculator link above many of these:

Wayne State University, Detroit

Initially I thought I had found Wayne State University’s net price calculator when I saw College Cost and Tuition Calculator, but that just directed me to’s list of calculators. Strange. Yesterday when I typed net price calculator into the university search engine, I got a Google message saying it couldn’t find matching documents, but today the search engine produced the calculator!

Bottom Line: 

Don’t be deterred if colleges and universities try to hide their net price calculators. It’s crucial that you use calculators to help pinpoint college costs well before applying. Maybe some day colleges will do the right thing and begin prominently displaying their calculators!
If you’ve had any experience with net price calculators, please share in the comment box below.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution, an Amazon bestseller, and the workbook, Shrinking the Cost of College: Great Ways to Cut the Cost of a Bachelor’s Degree. Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

More on The College Solution:

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Is the End Nearing for Affirmative Action at Universities?


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  1. In your experience how accurate are the NPCs? I’ve been doing a few at schools my daughter is interested in and wondering how much faith I can put in what it is telling me?

  2. Hi Lynn,
    I did a similar expirament last week and wrote about it. I even called Miami U (OH) to their financial aid office for assistance in locating it and they didn’t know what a Net Price Calculator was! Shame on them!

    1. Wow Lisa that’s really sad that the Miami U financial aid office didn’t even know what a net price calculator was! Actually, it’s worse than sad.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  3. I believe private schools in particular are worried about two things – that parents will use it and still feel the school is out of reach and never really look into the school, and that competitors can go in and figure out what their merit aid awards are by plugging in various grade point averages and SAT or ACT scores.
    The net price calculators are designed to put power in the consumers hands – like the last 3 times I bought a car and went in knowing what the dealer paid for the car because of my internet research. Its in the hands of the students and their parents. If they make colleges pay for not having good, accessible calculators by not attending, the colleges will get it right. If the families give in and don’t demand the calculators they will be a good idea that never panned out.

    1. Dave – Great point about the private school concerns. Colleges are businesses and they don’t want their competitors to get a leg up on them. In contrast, state universities financial aid policies are pretty cut and dry.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. I have only looked for the USC “Net Price Calculator” so far and did find it after some searching. It is definitely not prominent but did show in the websites search. Easy to use and understand once you got there.
    Now to go find 6 other calculators, we’ll see how it goes.

    1. Peter,
      While people can use the college’s search engine — and sometimes it will appear — what about all the people who don’t even know that net price calculators exist. You want the calculators displayed prominently so people will spot them and use them.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  5. Shame on the schools for not making this EASILY accessible for families. I’ve long been a proponent of private schools being more open about their financial aid packaging policies. Costs continue to escalate 3-7% (and much more here in CA with our publics, of course!), and much of the confusion about financial aid could be reduced if the schools – and the College Board – were more cooperative.