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An obstacle to figuring out college costs

(MoneyWatch) Nearly every college and university in the country must now post net price calculators on their website to help families figure whether a school is going to be affordable.

These calculators have been hailed as revolutionary because for the first time they give parents and students a way to determine a school's real price. The tool is intended to provide a personalized estimate of what a particular institution will cost. And often, an institution's net price -- a student's cost after scholarships and grants are deducted -- will be lower than the meaningless sticker prices colleges usually list.

At least in theory. The Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit research group, says in a new report that many of these calculators are difficult for students and their parents to find and use. The Institute examined 50 randomly selected net price calculators. 

"We found that nearly a year after the federal requirement, consumers can't count on net price calculators being easy to find, use or compare, said report author Diane Cheng in a statement. "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websites, had dozens of daunting questions or generated estimates that were confusing, misleading or unnecessarily out-of-date."

What's wrong with net price calculators

Some of the report's key findings: 

- Forty percent of schools relied on old figures in their net price calculators. Some schools used prices from as far back as the 2008-09 school year. 

- Nineteen schools subtracted so-called self-help assistance from their net price calculations, which made the cost look artificially low. Self-help aid encompasses work-study jobs and college loans. This practice is misleading and can make if more difficult for a family to compare results from other institutions' net price calculators.

- Nearly a quarter of the schools did not have a link to their net price calculators on the financial aid or cost section of their websites. Even when schools did post the link, it was rarely displayed prominently.

- Five colleges called their net price calculators by different names, such as tuition calculator or education cost calculator.

- Most schools did not explain how information submitted through their calculators would be used. 

Too much information?

School calculators also varied widely in the range of information they required to come up with a personalized net price estimate. Some calculators asked as few as eight questions, while others asked up to 70. The Institute believes that asking for too  much information is onerous for families. Still, when facing such a large expense, spending 10 or 15 more minutes to answer additional questions is well worth it if the effort results in more accurate estimates. 

While net price calculators can be invaluable, you need to be an educated consumer and avoid being tricked by schools that want to disguise their prices.