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Federal shutdown impacts college cost calculators

(MoneyWatch) This is the time of year when parents of high school seniors should be using net price calculators as they shop for colleges, but the federal government shutdown has shuttered the federal source for these valuable tools.

Until the shutdown, parents could head to the federal College Navigator to use the calculators which provide parents with a personalized estimate of what any college or university will cost them before their child ever applies. To use these valuable calculators, parents must plug in their tax and financial information and often information about their child's academic profile and in return a school 's calculator will provide the estimated net price for that particular child after any scholarships and grants are deducted.

By getting an advance look at potential financial aid and merit scholarships at specific schools, families can make better decisions about which colleges are worth targeting.

Thanks to the federal government's shutdown, however, the most publicly accessible source for net price calculators is out of commission. The College Navigator represents a one-stop shop for families who want to access the net price calculators for thousands of schools. This is the message that families who headed to the website today saw:

Parents can find net price calculators on the website of any school, but consumer advocates have complained that they can be difficult to find. A study by the Institute for College Access & Success concluded that some net price calculators were "buried deep within school websites."

Some colleges undoubtedly hide their calculators because they would prefer that parents not use them. 

Luckily, there is an excellent alternative for families who would like a one-stop shop for net price calculators. College Abacus, which was officially rolled out this month, also offers net price calculators for thousands of schools and anyone can use the service for free.

College Abacus makes searching for college net prices even more convenient for families than the federal website because parents only have to provide their information once to access all the calculators. Once parents have supplied the data, they can call up net prices for any schools without ever typing in their information again.

Abigail Seldin, a Rhodes scholar and the founder of College Abacus, has called her site the Kayak of college pricing and it's an apt description. The site allows you to hunt for college net prices as easily as looking up air fares to New York. It's a website definitely worth checking out.