Financial Aid Calculator to Come to Penn

The federally mandated calculator may help students estimate the net price of Penn

The Daily Pennsylvanian
September 25, 2011

By Seth Zweifler

Future applicants to Penn may soon enter the admissions process with a bit more certainty in hand.

In line with a U.S. Department of Education requirement, Student Financial Services is set to unveil its version of a net-price financial aid calculator by the federal deadline, Oct. 29.

The addition of the calculator – which is mandated by the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 – will enable students to get a better sense of their overall sticker price for a Penn education, Director of Student Financial Aid Bill Schilling said.

Though SFS is in the process of putting the final touches on its calculator, Schilling expressed concern over what might happen when it is released next month.

Whereas all aid applications are reviewed by University staff, he explained, the calculator – which students will use anonymously through SFS’s website – contains no human element, relying instead on a formula which may not take into account special circumstances.

“The worry is that the calculator’s results may diverge significantly from actual aid awards,” Schilling said. “There might be families out there who think the calculator’s results represent their final aid packages … when that isn’t the case at all.”

Because of such concerns, he added that “this [calculator] probably isn’t something we’d be doing if it wasn’t required.”

Despite the calculator’s perceived drawbacks, Schilling said he does see some advantages.

In particular, he hopes it will be an effective tool to show lower-income families and first-generation applicants that a Penn education is affordable.

To help draw those students into the University’s applicant pool, SFS selected the College Board as the supplier of its calculator near the end of the 2010-11 academic year.

Over the past few months, a team of eight SFS and Admissions Office staff have taken the College Board’s model and adapted it to reflect the University’s financial aid formula.

The College Board’s version of the calculator – which is currently used by more than 300 colleges nationwide, including Brown University, Columbia University and Dartmouth College – allows users to compare net costs for participating schools without having to re-enter information for each institution.

The goal behind the calculator’s construction was to create a tool that would be “easy for students to access and use and that would present the information about net price in a consistent format,” College Board spokeswoman Kathleen Steinberg wrote in an email.

However, some say that the College Board’s calculator – and, by extension, Penn’s – may sacrifice accuracy for simplicity.

Using the College Board’s generic model instead of hiring a private vendor to construct a calculator from scratch “means that Penn will be giving the least amount of information possible to students and families about net cost,” Top Colleges educational consultant Steven Goodman said.

“The vast majority of applicants to Penn are incredibly sophisticated people who don’t need a back-of-the-envelope price estimate,” added Goodman, who earned his master’s degree from Penn’s Graduate School of Education in 1989. “They need as sophisticated an estimate as possible, and requiring more inputs on the calculator is the only way to achieve that.”

Paul Boyer, director of financial aid at Williams College, agreed.

In 2003, Williams was among the first higher education institutions in the nation to release its version of an online net-price calculator.

Boyer said Williams’ calculator “errs on the side of requiring a lot of detail” from users. While he understands Schilling’s concerns over the potential for divergence between the calculator’s returns and actual aid results, he said Williams’ model has proven to be “very accurate overall.”

In the instances where there have been significant gaps, Boyer added, it has usually been due to a “major data omission” by the family.

However, for David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, usability is a key consideration.

“There is a trade-off, of course, between simplicity and accuracy, but in order for the calculators to be effective, students and families will have to be able to use them first,” he said.

Schilling said it will be important for Penn to “strike a balance” between the two extremes.

While he does not think the calculator will change the aid process dramatically, he is encouraged that a series of recent dry runs – using financial aid applications from past years as inputs – have proven “quite accurate.”

“The only way to know the value of your [aid] package isn’t going to change,” Schilling said. “You have to apply.”

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