A new online app called College Abacus is making it easier for students and their families to get estimates in advance of how much financial aid colleges and universities will give so that they can compare schools for costs.
It provides a private-sector alternative to College Navigator, a tool also designed to help families figure out college costs and operated by the Department of Education.
College Abacus is a free, one-stop shop. It taps the net price calculators at three schools a student selects. Then, based on personal information entered once into College Abacus, the site retrieves the estimates. More schools can be entered, three at a time.
The federal government’s College Navigator website offers a rougher estimate. For each school, it will give estimated net prices for several income levels.
“Parents still need to find financial aid for their students to go to college,” said College Abacus co-founder Abigail Seldin.
Referring to a popular travel accommodations search engine, Seldin calls College Abacus the kayak.com of net price calculators. It takes 10 minutes or more to copy financial information from a tax return and answer other questions on many net price calculators. College Abacus lets a user log in via Facebook, Google-plus or Twitter and save the data so that it only has to be done once.
The free service isn’t without some glitches.
It requires the patience to wait a few minutes for some estimates. In some cases, as when schools take their calculators down for revisions, College Abacus can’t get results.
Another issue with the estimates is the quality of the net price calculators.
Many schools use a simple calculator developed by the Department of Education, rather than ones developed by the College Board and others that ask more detailed financial questions.
One important question the Department of Education calculators don’t ask is the amount of parents’ assets.
College Abacus, in the details section of the estimates report, tells users what type of net price calculator a school offers.