Universities may have to choose between accuracy and convenience when providing the estimated cost of tuition for prospective students, a new study shows.
The net price tuition calculator is a federally mandated tool that allows students to individually estimate the cost of enrolling in higher education institutions. A study published last week in the Social Science Research Network about universities’ net price calculator accuracy has raised questions about the functionality of the calculator that Yale Student Financial Services offers to prospective students. According to the authors of the study, Yale’s calculator may provide more accurate information, but its detail-oriented approach sacrifices convenience and accessibility.
Still, in a poll conducted by the News, 49 out of 64 students said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the Yale calculator, having received financial aid predictions that matched or exceeded their initial expectations.
“The Student Financial Services office wanted to provide the most accurate family contribution calculation possible, so Yale opted for a full financial questionnaire,” Director of Financial Aid Caesar Storlazzi said. “We want to get the clear message out that Yale is affordable and has a generous financial aid program.”
The study focuses on the federally provided net price calculator template, which is used by more than 50 percent of American universities and asks nine basic questions about students’ financial status. With data from 18 universities, the study compared the estimated cost that financial aid calculators project against the actual costs students received after enrollment. The study found that while the calculator provided good estimates on average, there were substantial variations — up to several thousand dollars — in individual cases.
Yale, however, does not use the federal template, and instead partners with an outside vendor, Student Aid Services, for its net price calculator. Unlike the federal template, Yale’s net price calculator is close to a full financial questionnaire in its specificity, and includes inquiries about the non-monetary assets of its users. “The calculator is highly accurate and was designed intentionally with that goal,” he said. “We typically hear from less than five families per year about discrepancies; they are most often caused by incorrect data entry.”
According to the News’ poll, Yale’s calculator does appear to provide generally accurate estimates for prospective students. Fifty-five percent of respondents said the calculator provided an accurate estimate of their real cost, 20 percent said the calculator overestimated the cost of enrollment, while another 20 percent said that they received an underestimate. However, similar to the findings in the study, there also appear to be significant variations in the estimate, with one student noting that the calculator had underestimated his cost by “around 10,000 dollars.”
Study co-author Abigail Seldin — an operator of CollegeAbacus.org, a free website that offers information about net price calculators — said she believes proprietary net price calculators are more accurate than the free, federal format. Aaron Anthony, the other co-author, said Yale’s emphasis on accuracy over convenience contrasts with the federal template and raises the question of how an ideal calculator should balance between the two extremes.
“Sometimes the calculators can get pretty in depth and complicated … that can deter usage,” he said. “The federal template is great in this respect, but then yields a less precise estimate of costs.”
Nevertheless, Yale’s financial aid office aims to provide a suitable financial aid package to every admitted student, Storlazzi said. Of the 12 students who reported dissatisfaction with the net price calculator’s initial results, eight said they approached the admissions or financial aid office in order to try negotiating a new package. Of those, three said they were able to do so successfully.
Yale spends roughly $120 million per year on financial aid.