One of the big mysteries of postsecondary education is how much it's going to cost.
Most schools list their full price on their websites along with statements about how many of their students receive financial aid. Some run a tantalizing list of scholarships.
But for any individual student, the question remains:
How much will it cost me?
The answer depends on a wide variety of factors that can be considered differently from school to school, resulting in an actual price much different from the sticker price for many students.
By Oct. 29 this year, the federal government requires post-secondary institutions which receive federal funding and have first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students -- including public, private nonprofit and for-profit schools -- to post a net price calculator on their websites.
The net price is the amount students and their families have to pay once grants and scholarships -- aid that does not have to be paid back -- are taken into account. Many school calculators also will show amounts of available loans and work-study opportunities.
"The new calculator can make it personal," said Joell Minford, director of admissions at Point Park University which has a calculator posted on its website.
Some families may be scared away by the list price of a school, but David McFarland, director of admissions at La Roche College where a committee is working on a calculator, said, "One of the nice features of the cost calculator is families can figure out it's not necessarily that bad."
The calculators are required by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008.
The calculators are meant only to be an estimate, not a guarantee of aid. They are limited both by the accuracy of information families put in and the limited number of factors the calculators consider.
Families still must file the financial aid application known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to be eligible for financial aid.
"It's a step in the right direction," said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Fastweb.com and FinAid.org and author of a new book, "Secrets to Winning a Scholarship."
"The idea is to allow families to get an idea of how much college is going to cost them before they apply. I think it's going to be somewhat imperfect of a tool," he said.
He said it remains to be seen how well the calculators predict actual aid awards.
As part of a website redesign, Point Park University put a calculator on its website in 2009.
"We've had positive response," said Mrs. Minford. "I think families like it because they can investigate the costs of the school before their son or daughter gets too invested in the idea of being able to go there or not go there."
The Point Park calculator keeps it simple. It asks for a major, household income, family size, number in college, student housing needs, grade point average and SAT scores.
The result is a list that shows costs as well as need-based grants, merit-based grants and loans.
While the calculator isn't a guarantee of aid, Mrs. Minford said it so far has proven to be "fairly accurate."
For schools that don't want to or can't afford to design their own calculator, the U.S. Department of Education has issued a basic template schools can follow.
"If you just do the basic, it's not going to be as accurate as a school slicing and dicing all of the demographics of their student body," said Justin Draeger, president and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
For the basic template of the federal calculator, schools fill in the amounts of tuition and required fees; room and board; books and supplies; and other expenses.
The schools also provide dollar figures for the median amount of grant aid -- from federal, state and institutional sources but not private sources -- that students with various levels of expected family contribution, known as EFC, receive.
The EFC is computed when families fill out the FAFSA.
Based on financial details students and parents enter, the FAFSA computes how much the family is expected to contribute.
Along with the calculator, the colleges also must include the percentage of first-time, full-time students who are seeking a degree or certificate who receive grants or scholarships.
There also are spaces for caveats to help users understand the numbers and limitations.
The federal calculator does not take into account certain factors some colleges consider, such as merit awards, or the variations in how some colleges package their aid.
In addition, the cost figures colleges plug into a calculator may apply to the prior year, figures that are likely to be lower than those for the coming year.
Families using the various calculators will need to have their tax forms handy for both parent and student income to be able to answer questions accurately.
Some calculators may ask the families to insert the EFC, for which the family must complete the FAFSA or use an online EFC calculator for an estimate.
Mr. Draeger said he thinks the accuracy will improve over time as the calculators become more sophisticated.
Meanwhile, parents and students have other ways to find out college costs.
Many schools list prices on their websites and have detailed explanations of types of financial aid available.
School financial aid officers typically welcome questions even before a student applies.
Parents and students also can get information on schools -- whether they post their prices on their websites or not -- on a federal website called College Navigator, http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator.
College Navigator has a treasure trove of statistics on each school participating in the federal student aid program.
College Navigator covers thousands of postsecondary schools, including more than 400 in Pennsylvania.
College Navigator provides information on cost of attendance -- including tuition, fees, room and board -- for four previous years so that students can see how costs have changed.
It also shows the number and percentage of students who receive financial aid, the average grant size and the average loan size.
It gives an average net price for full-time beginning undergraduate students who receive grant or scholarship aid from federal, state or local governments or the institution. It also breaks net price down by income categories.
By July this year, the federal law requires College Navigator to add a list of schools with the highest and lowest net prices.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.