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Last updated March 27, 2024

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How to Use a Net Price Calculator

Key Takeaway

Net Price Calculators (NPCs) are tools that help you estimate the actual cost of attending a college or university. By inputting your financial information, NPCs show you an estimated amount you would pay after factoring in need-based and potentially merit-based financial aid. While NPCs are not guarantees, they help you understand how affordable different institutions may be for you.

An important part of building your college list is knowing whether you can afford to attend the schools you’ve selected.

That’s where Net Price Calculators (NPCs) come in handy. NPCs are tools that take your financial information and calculate what the “net price” (i.e., the price you’d actually end up paying out of pocket) would be for you at any given college or university.

Let’s dive into what net price calculators are and how you can use them to your advantage.

What is a Net Price Calculator?

Every college and university in the United States is legally required to have a Net Price Calculator on their website.

This tool helps families understand their possible financial situation at each institution. The NPC allows you to input your financial information, including income, assets, and household size, and estimates your total cost of attendance.

The dollar amount a Net Price Calculator outputs is the amount you would be expected to pay after factoring in need-based and possibly even merit-based financial aid.

Just remember that the NPC provides an "estimate." It's not a guarantee of aid, and the actual financial aid award you receive (if admitted, of course!) may be different. But the tool is helpful to give you a rough idea of how affordable a college might be.

How to Use a Net Price Calculator?

To find a specific college's NPC, do a Google search with the college's name and the term "Net Price Calculator." Example: Harvard Net Price Calculator. The calculator itself should be a straightforward process that involves filling out your family's financial details.

Keep in mind that the accuracy of the NPC relies entirely on the accuracy of the information you provide. If you're putting in inaccurate information, the estimated net price will be off, so you should be as thorough as you can be.

When filling out NPCs, you’ll probably need the help of a parent or guardian since many of the questions revolve around a parent’s or guardian’s income and assets.

Each school has a separate NPC, and each one needs the same information. Yes, it can be a bit time-consuming. But if you can’t pay for college out of pocket, then filling out NPCs is an important part of the college application process.

Once you have your results, don't forget to save them for each school. Take a screenshot or download a PDF and save it somewhere you’ll be able to find later.

Having the documentation is important because it serves as a reference point once you receive financial aid packages from the colleges to which you applied.

If you are accepted to a college and their financial aid package varies significantly from the NPC’s data, you can use the NPC data to discuss your concerns with and appeal to the financial aid office. They might be able to help you out.

What if the Net Price Calculator says I can’t afford a college or university?

Just because the NPC says you can’t afford a college or university doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t apply. The NPC is a starting point. It will give you a realistic idea of what it would take financially to attend that school.

Does that mean you won’t be eligible for other merit or talent scholarships or other kinds of outside funding? Of course not.

But if you know from the NPC that a college would cost more than you can afford, then you’ll need to look extra hard for those other kinds of financial aid.


The NPC is more than just a tool; it's a way to learn about college costs. It helps you estimate, compare, and plan for your education expenses at different institutions, which can ultimately influence your college choice. So, when you’re creating your list of colleges, be sure to understand the financial implications by using the Net Price Calculator. It’s an essential part of your college application journey and can make the decision process easier for you and your family.

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