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Questioning the Calculations

Under the direction of Dr. Laura Perna and with support from Lumina Foundation, this project examines the cost-related information that colleges and universities are providing on their websites. 

The study finds important limitations in the information that is available on many institutional websites. Some universities are not in compliance with the federal law that requires colleges and universities to make available a net price calculator (NPC). Others are providing inaccurate and misleading information.

Prospective students need accurate, complete, and individualized information about their expected costs to determine the institutions to which to apply, and to appropriately plan for how to pay the costs. Having this information early in the college-going process—without having to complete the FAFSA—is especially important to low-income students, first-generation college students, and individuals who do not have ready access to college and financial aid counselors.

Colleges and universities can—and should—do more to ensure that prospective students have the useful and usable cost information they need.

Press release 

New Report Finds Net Price Calculators Lack Usability and Usefulness for Estimating the Price of College: Many Higher Education Institutions are Misleading Prospective Students

Research brief

Perna, L. W., Wright-Kim, J., & Jiang, N. (2019). Questioning the calculations: Are colleges complying with federal and ethical mandates for providing students with estimated costs? (Penn AHEAD Research Brief – March 2019). Philadelphia, PA: The Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (Penn AHEAD), University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.


Perna, L. W., Wright-Kim, J. (2019). Net price calculators were supposed to make it easier to understand the cost of college – instead, many are making it more difficult. The Conversation (

Perna, L. W., Wright-Kim, J. (2019). It's time for transparency in college pricing. The Hill (

Press coverage


Perna, L. W., Wright-Kim, J., & Jiang, N. (2018, November). Money matters: Understanding how colleges and universities use their websites to communicate information about how to pay college costs. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, Tampa, FL.

Perna, L. W., & Wright-Kim, J. (September 2018). Helping students understand college costs: The role of the Net Price Calculator. Session presented at the annual meeting of the Council on Opportunity in Education, New York, NY.  


For more information, please contact Penn AHEAD.