When it comes to estimating the cost of college, sticker shock may now be replaced with sticker confusion.
Colleges and universities are now required to include a "net price calculator" on their web sites to help people figure out costs. Because of financial aid, most people don't actually pay full price and this is supposed to offer a more realistic estimate.
And schools aren't always using the same information to estimate a price because the the U.S. Department of Education doesn't require them to. Some factor Bright Futures scholarships, work study or subsidized student loans, while others do not.
"The more I learn about the net calculators, the less impressed I am," said Terri Roher, a college and career adviser for College Academy, a high school run by Broward College. "I thought it was going to be some magic bullet to really give parents great information, but it doesn't seem to be working out that way."
The sticker price for most Florida public universities is roughly the same: about $20,000 a year, but the net prices on the calculators can vary greatly.
That's because some schools have the time and resources to develop up-to-date calculators, while others must rely on what is freely available from the federal government, said Jane Glickman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.
"Depending on the size, complexity and academic calendar of an institution, this will result in an inconsistency that can't be overcome," she said.
Despite their flaws, the calculators can still be useful, said Diane Cheng, of the California-based Institute for College Access & Success, which advocates for college affordability. "Even having a ballpark estimate will be helpful."
Here is what the calculators at five Florida schools would show. The in-state students would be age 17 and live on campus. The totals do not include work study or loans, except for FSU. They do include Bright Futures, except for FAU.
Parents make $20,000 combined; Bright Future Medallion recipient.
FAU (2009 data): $7,455
(without Bright Futures)
FSU (2010 data): $4,960
(includes work study
and subsidized loans).
UF (2011 data): $9,121