Anyone who's sought comfort from the plethora of well-meaning online retirement calculators knows the electronic exercise can be helpful, frustrating or irrelevant.
That also can be the case for "net price" calculators that the federal government requires colleges to post online. They are intended to help prospective students calculate how much of the cost a year in school will come out of their pockets or the wallets of their parents and other investors.
A report last week from a nonprofit that promotes wider access to affordable college education found the calculators can be hard to find on many schools' websites and difficult to use. Moreover, they sometimes thwart the whole purpose of the exercise by making it hard to compare out-of-pocket costs among schools.
"While some were easy to find and use, others were buried on college websites, had dozens of daunting questions or generated estimates that were confusing, misleading or unnecessarily out of date," said Diane Cheng, the author of the report and a research analyst with The Institute for College Access & Success.
The "net price" calculators were mandated by 2008 legislation. They were supposed to be installed on the websites of private and public colleges and for-profit schools as of Oct. 29, 2011.
Prospective students feed the calculators information about their grades, test scores, family finances and other data, which generate an estimate of what a year of schooling will cost, after deducting estimates of what scholarships and grants the applicant is likely to receive.
Those estimates are important because they can show applicants that schools with higher tuition and room and board charges are not necessarily the schools that will cost them the most.
"Done right, they can be very powerful tools for early awareness and in helping families see past the sticker price, which is often misleading," said Lauren Asher, the institute's president.
The institute looked at the calculators on the websites of 50 schools it randomly selected. Nearly a quarter of the schools did not have a link to the calculator on the financial aid or cost pages of their website, which is where the institute thinks it should be. Some links were on those pages but hard to find, researchers found.
To produce a net price, calculators asked anywhere from eight to 70 questions. More than a third asked for detailed financial information that students or parents could not provide unless they pulled out tax returns or other records. Ms. Asher said the hard-to-answer questions may discourage people from completing the exercise. (Conceivably, if students are intimidated by those questions, they also may be intimidated by college course work.) One alternative is to provide ranges of family income that would give useful estimates of out-of-pocket costs, she said.
Some of the calculators ask for an applicant's contact information, something Ms. Asher said students are not required to provide. Some schools do not make it clear that providing the information -- which can lead to unwanted solicitations -- is voluntary. The request also can make some applicants wary about using the net price calculator, she said.
One of the biggest problems the institute found was that 19 schools provided not only the mandated net cost estimate, but estimates that deduct loans and work study grants as well as scholarships and grants from the sticker price. Ms. Asher said applicants will be misled if they compare one school's net cost figure with another school's estimate that reflects loans and work study grants.
More than a third of the schools provided estimates based on the cost of tuition and other charges in the 2008-09 or 2009-10 school years, despite the fact that schools were required to report net price data for the 2010-11 school year to the U.S. Department of Education by February 2012.
Ms. Asher said since schools have more recent data, they should use it. Otherwise, applicants can't make apples-to-apples comparisons among schools, she said.
Of course, even the best net price calculators address only the expense side of the equation. They don't address the revenue side: how much students and parents have saved for the endeavor.
"College has become so expensive that middle-income clients don't even come close to coming up with the full boat," said Robert Nusbaum, a financial planner with Middle America Planning in Mt. Lebanon.
Mr. Nusbaum doesn't have much experience with the calculators. He adjusts college cost figures published by the College Board for inflation to advise clients how much they need to save.
"That gives me a ballpark cost figure, and then I give the client a rough amount that they need to save monthly to get to 25, 50, 75 or 100 percent of that number," he said.
As hard as the college net price calculators may be to use, the exercise is no doubt easier than actually saving for college. Many who can't save will end up borrowing, a subject the institute will address in coming weeks when it discloses the average student loan debt that seniors who graduated in May 2011 are burdened with.
For the class of 2010, the figure was $25,250.
Len Boselovic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1941.