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New calculators estimate college costs

Amherst financial aid calculator

It’s hard to know exactly how much money kids need for college because so much depends on where they plan to go.

But a new type of calculator is providing much better estimates of how much parents will be expected to pay, and what kind of financial aid a student might qualify for, based on family income and the school’s tuition and housing costs.

A higher education law Congress passed last year requires all colleges to have net price calculators on their Web sites by 2011, and they’re already available at schools including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale University, Princeton University, Amherst College and Williams College.

The calculators ask for much of the same financial information — such as family income and assets — as the government’s Federal Student Aid program seeks on its Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

It uses that to determine how much each student will be expected to pay. (In college speak, that’s the “Family Contribution.”)

The calculator then shows how much it costs to go there and the financial aid package the school might propose to make up the difference between the family’s out-of-pocket contribution and the total bill.

In an example we ran using Amherst College’s calculator (see above), the school proposes a generous scholarship and modest campus job.

The Massachusetts school was one of the first colleges to stop requiring student loans as part of its financial aid packages. That’s why “Student Loan” shows up as “0” on the calculator’s final form.

But for most colleges and universities, student loans are a big part of financial aid packages.

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