Families who are a few years out from college should calculate their EFC, but as college approaches and students start identifying schools they’re interested in, net price calculators become far more valuable. There can be vast differences between EFC and net price, and even significant school-to-school differences in net price due to different aid policies.

A family I worked with is a great example of this. We calculated their FAFSA EFC to be $34,311 for their daughter, with two students in college. Their PROFILE EFC was higher, around $40,000. These were good starting points: we could assume that if they looked at schools offering need-based aid only, their minimum annual cost would be $34,311. (Their in-state public schools cost less, of course.)

Then we started using the net price calculator for the schools their daughter was interested in. The results ranged from around $36,000 to $60,000 for different schools. The $36,000 option included scholarships and grants; one of the $60,000 options recommended a healthy serving of Parent PLUS loans.

Even when using a school’s net price calculators, you need to pay attention to the fine print. While some of the schools requested academic information (asking for varying levels of detail including GPA, test scores, courses taken, class rank, etc.), not all the schools requesting this information indicated in the net cost that the student might be eligible for some merit aid. In fact, one of the $60,000 schools has a healthy merit aid budget that was not reflected anywhere in the net price. This isn’t necessarily an oversight; many schools don’t include those awards in net price estimates since they’re discretionary.

In summary: EFC is a great starting point, and you can quickly estimate it using the FAFSA4caster (for more accurate results, add any pre-tax retirement contributions to your AGI). Once you have some schools in mind, though, the net price calculator is the better tool. Even then, you need to understand what is and is not included in the net price. If merit awards are included, you need to be very clear about how likely your student is to receive the award. If not, go to the school’s financial aid page to find out what scholarships you might be eligible for. And make sure to keep your student in the loop. The conversation goes like this: “If you get XYZ scholarship, that would bring your cost to attend ABC University into a realistic range. If not, then it’s too expensive.”