But soon an estimate of how much you must pay to attend a specific college based on your family finances will be available years in advance. This can help families search for a school they can afford and give them a better idea of how much they need to save. And what they may find in some cases is that the most expensive schools aren't out of financial reach.
And there's a big difference between the sticker price of college — tuition, fees, books, room and board — and the net price.
For instance, Harvard's sticker price for a freshman from Maryland is $56,250. But the estimated net price for a Maryland family earning $100,000 is $12,000, according to the school's net price calculator. That's because Harvard offers a generous scholarship program that chops the price of education by more than half for families with modest means — which includes those with six-figure incomes.
The calculators aren't dead-on precise. There's no guarantee, for instance, that you would receive the scholarships or grants of the typical student. But at the very least, the calculators will provide a ballpark estimate — something families haven't previously had ahead of time.
Patty Williams, director of financial aid at McDaniel College, says the Westminster private school is using the calculator as a marketing tool. McDaniel isn't cheap: $44,860 a year.
But Williams says that once a family sees some of the aid provided by the school, the price tag doesn't seem so steep. A Carroll County resident, for example, is entitled to a $2,000 grant. And a family can get another $2,000 grant if it has two undergraduate students at McDaniel. And even B students could receive an academic scholarship worth at least $8,000.
The University of Maryland, College Park currently uses a simple calculator created by the U.S. Department of Education. It asks nine questions, including how many children the family has in college, family income, and whether the student is married or has dependents.
The university is developing its own calculator, which should be available in roughly six months, that will take into account its unique aid programs, says Sarah Bauder, assistant vice president for financial aid and enrollment services at the College Park campus. For instance, the school offers a Maryland Pathways grant program that gives a full ride to Maryland residents who are in or on the cusp of the poverty level, she says.
Some schools have offered net price calculators for a long time, but many started to add them only this year because of the federal mandate.
The Institute for College Access & Success, a California-based advocacy group, surveyed calculators earlier this year and found that some schools bury them on websites. You might have to use the search tool on the school's site to uncover the calculator.
Also, some calculators require so much detailed information on taxes and finances that they can be too daunting for a student, says Diane Cheng, a research associate with College Access.
"We're concerned, based on detailed questions, those students might not get any results at all," she says.
Some sites will ask for your email, address or other personal information, but you don't have to provide this information, Cheng says.
Another caveat: The net price is based on the first year of a full-time student. Some schools "front load" grants, meaning they award more grants to freshmen than to upperclassmen, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org, an online provider of aid information. In those cases, out-of-pocket costs in subsequent years will go up.
Cheng suggests contacting a school's aid office to find out if a grant will be available for all four years.
Many calculators also will figure the "net cost" of college, Kantrowitz says, which shouldn't be confused with net price. The net cost is the price of college after all aid — including student and parent loans — is subtracted and can be significantly lower than the net price.
"You might have a net cost of zero," Kantrowitz says. "It's more of a cash-flow analysis. How much cash you have to come up with as opposed to how much it really costs you."
In short, since loans must be repaid, the net cost can hide the true cost of college.
If you are sizing up schools, make sure you are comparing the net prices.