What do the numbers $7,000, $42,000, $44,000, $56,000, $58,000, $72,000 and $81,000 have in common? Each is a net price estimate (rounded) that we received from a different college, using the same data inputs. That’s one example of why one might reasonably argue that Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is of marginal significance.

All colleges that participate in federal student aid programs are required to have net price calculators on their website. As an added convenience, when you complete one you can save your data to your student’s College Board account so that you can quickly complete multiple net price calculators and compare likely costs and aid packages at different schools. Not all net price calculators are created equal: some only calculate need-based aid, whereas others ask for data to help calculate any merit aid for which the student might be eligible.

Colleges can either use the U.S. Department of Education’s net price calculator or create their own. Since the DoE’s calculator uses the FAFSA to calculate EFC, you should expect that you are using a different version of the calculator if the school requires the CSS Profile. Regardless of which route the school goes, net price calculators have the following minimum requirements:

“Input elements must include:

  • Data elements to approximate the student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC), such as income, number in family, and dependency status or factors that estimate dependency status*

*An institution may use either Federal Methodology or Institutional Methodology to approximate the student’s EFC.

“Output elements must include:

  • Estimated total cost of attendance;
  • Estimated tuition and fees;
  • Estimated room and board;
  • Estimated books and supplies;
  • Estimated other expenses (personal expenses, transportation, etc.);
  • Estimated total grant aid;
  • Estimated net price;
  • Percent of the cohort (full-time, first-time students) that received grant aid; and
  • Caveats and disclaimers, as indicated in the [Higher Education Act].”

The Department of Education also requires that net price calculators “clearly present a student’s estimated individual net price. The definition of net price is the amount that a student pays to attend an institution in a single academic year after subtracting scholarships and grants – forms of financial aid that a student does not have to pay back.” So, while the output may show loans– including subsidized loans– and work study as options to cover the student’s cost, the net price will be calculated separately from those amounts.

The DoE net price calculator uses median grant and scholarship amounts based on EFC to show net prices, which means that actual aid offers may vary. In addition to completing net price calculators at all schools that the student is interested in, students should research what additional institutional scholarships they may be eligible for to get a better sense of the range of offers they might receive.

You can also use net price calculators to try out different scenarios: What does the aid package look like if a sibling goes to college? Would I actually be penalized for having more savings? Just remember as you use them that they are designed to show first year student costs and likely aid packages so there may be some variation from year to year.

For what it’s worth, all of the schools my kids applied to provided a financial aid award that put total net cost within $2,000 of the net price estimate we received, so our experience was that these are reasonably accurate. But that’s a sample size of nine which is probably not statistically significant.