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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

Net price calculator: Compute with caution

The UA has created a net price calculator to help applicants estimate the amount of need-based aid they could receive, but its accuracy in determining true cost of attendance is questionable.

The Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid posted the new calculator to comply with a federal mandate that went into effect on Saturday. Colleges and universities all over the country must have some form of a net price calculator designed to estimate net loans, grants and cost of attendance.

Although the calculator is a “step in the right direction,” according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of finaid.org and author of “Secrets to Winning a Scholarship,” it should be used as a “ball park estimate that may not be all that accurate.”

The data used in the UA’s calculator is 2 years old, Kantrowitz said, because the information used was gathered in December, while the financial aid budget for the fall semester was created the spring before. This poses a problem when comparing the UA to other colleges, he said, who may have created their own custom calculators using different data.

“You’re going to have results that aren’t really comparable,” Kantrowitz added.

The definition of net price is also flawed, he said, because the average grant sum used in the calculators is specific to first-year, full-time students, not transfer or part-time students. Additionally, Kantrowitz said the calculator is geared toward grant recipients instead of the general student, which could be problematic if a potential student uses the calculator and is unsure if they will receive a grant.

“This could understate the cost by thousands of dollars,” he said.
While some are wary of the calculator, others like John Nametz, director of student financial aid at the UA, maintain it is “exactly accurate for what it does.”

Nametz explained that the calculator looks at the median of the user’s information, which can becompared with the medians at other schools, he said, and is more accurate than using a simple average.

There are a few factors the UA’s calculator does not take into account, he said. Nametz explained that it does not embed scholarship money given after the admissions process, does not consider class and department competitiveness and cannot predict changes in a student’s life that could change the amount of financial aid awarded.

His office makes about 4,000 adjustments in student financial aid per year, he said, for many reasons, including a change in a parent’s income or an increase in a student’s medical expenses.

“There’s no calculator that can deal with that,” he said. “There’s no way we can make it as accurate as we would like … but students still benefit from it. It does take certain things into account.”

Some student groups applauded the UA’s efforts to focus on the total cost of attendance rather than tuition alone.

“Tuition is not the only cost students incur, we need to look at total affordability of higher education,” said Dan Fitzgibbon, board chair of the Arizona Students’ Association. Although the calculator can help future students “roughly plan” the cost of attending the UA, he said, it does not factor in tuition increases. Fitzgibbon put in what his information would have looked like during his incoming freshman year, and the calculator gave him a net price of about $6,000, which he said is “no longer the case.”

“There is no predictability in the way we see costs increase,” he said. “Our (ASA’s) biggest priority is to ensure that projected aid is as high as possible.”

James Allen, president of the Associated Students of the University of Arizona, said the calculator gives students a good idea of what their cost of attendance could be. But due to the calculator’s “vagueness” and “lack of detail,” he said, it runs the risk of not being entirely accurate because it could become outdated from tuition and fee hikes. He said information like a student’s high school grade point average could be helpful, because the calculator could then factor in additional funding sources like merit-based scholarships.

“It’s an excellent starting point, and an improvement because we didn’t have this in the past,” Allen said. “If you’re taking out a loan, for example, it’s serious. You need to be able to gauge the total cost of what you’re paying.”

The UA will keep its calculator in its current form for now, but different pieces may be added to it as situations like state policy change, Nametz said.

“The calculators are suffering teething pains, and it could take a few years before Congress updates the statute after seeing the first year’s usage,” Kantrowitz added. “They will eventually be a very good tool to help families understand affordability.”

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