One truly helpful newer federal regulation (effective 2011) requires that any institution participating in Title IV federal student aid programs (the majority of schools) must post a net price calculator on its website. NPCs allow students and families to see what they would likely receive in financial assistance from the school and from the government, therefore yielding a pretty realistic net cost.
To navigate quickly to a NPC do an online search like “Boston University Net Price Calculator,” and you should quickly be connected to the correct part of the school website and not need to hunt for it. You input your personal data points, which will include some basic demographic questions, standard family tax filing information, family size/parental marital status, and student information, especially grade point average, and at the end you will be told what you would likely receive in gift aid and self-help aid. The calculator will warn you that information is an illustration and not a promise of a particular award, but I hear from families that college offers are usually close to the NPC estimate unless substantive family info changes during the application process.
Nearly 300 U.S. colleges use the College Board’s net price calculator, enabling students to easily compare outcomes among the participating colleges. To do this you should create a student account, which is free and private, and save your personal data in the system. The following is the link to this planning tool on the College Board site: http://studentnpc.collegeboard.org/
Whether you utilize a school’s own NPC or the College Board calculator or some other, this tool is a great bonus to college financial aid planning. It will also go a long way to counteracting the false assumptions that many make about the true cost of college and the availability of aid. Check them out!