Federal law mandates calculator

To comply with a federal mandate effective Oct. 29, USC posted a calculator through the admissions website that allows applicants to estimate the amount of need-based aid they will receive.

The calculator provides an estimate of the net price of the university for a student based on their family income, aid eligibility and other factors.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act, mandated the change this year, requires universities to “develop a net price calculator to help current and prospective students, families and other consumers estimate the individual net price of an institution of higher education for a student.”

Though the university’s official total estimated cost of attendance is about $58,000 per year, including tuition, room and board and other expenses, the calculator will show what the expected cost to individual students will be.

USC’s calculator asks 19 questions similar to those found on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which applicants fill out to receive federal financial aid. The survey estimates how much state, federal and university need-based aid a student can expect to receive based on the amounts awarded to students with similar financial circumstances in the previous year.

“Like anything else, it’s an approximation,” said Thomas McWhorter, dean of the Financial Aid Office. “From the amount of time we’ve spent on the calculator, I know that it gives pretty good results. But when you use computer algorithms to simulate this, it won’t be perfect.”

The site clearly notes the estimates do not represent a final determination and are not binding.

“The students will get an idea and understanding of the cost of higher education, but also the possibilities and options they have,” McWhorter said.

Some students said they were excited about the new college admissions tool.

“It’s very helpful, especially when it comes to private schools, which tend to be more expensive,” said Aziz Akbari, a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering. “Because money is usually a factor, this information will help students make a better decision.”

Some students said they would have liked this resource during their application process.

“I didn’t know how much aid money I’d get until I submitted my deposit. [The calculator] would have been very useful to me in making my decision,” said Brett Dutton, an undeclared freshman.

Ifrah Sheikh, a sophomore majoring in fine arts, said the calculator will be more useful than the estimated total cost, which was the only cost previously available online.

“[Prospective students] just look at the overall price because that’s what’s available,” Sheikh said. “[With the calculator] they’ll be better able to see if [USC] is worth it or not based on the cost of education.”

The estimate does not, however, include student loans, work study or merit aid.

Of entering students, 23 percent receives merit awards, according to the Financial Aid Office, including full scholarships, half scholarships and other awards, which are not based on financial need or family income.

“The merit scholarships are a big factor in many students’ decisions. If the site doesn’t tell students about [merit scholarships], then it isn’t really an accurate estimate,” said Kim Chu, a sophomore majoring in computer science and business administration.

The Financial Aid Office does not predict merit awards because they are awarded to students by admissions.

The federal law gives universities the option of either using a template developed by the federal government or developing the calculator on their own. USC developed its own calculator, according to the Financial Aid Office.

A major concern for the university was trying not to confuse prospective students or their parents, according to the Financial Aid Office.

The office also did not want to discourage any prospective students from applying for financial reasons.

“We don’t want students to look at the freshman profile and think ‘I’m not going to be admitted.’ We still want them to apply,” McWhorter said. “It’s the same thing with the calculator. We don’t want someone to look at this and not apply.”

According to College Board, the average full-time student in the United States receives more than $6,000 in grants. At USC, 63 percent of students receive need or merit-based aid.

Sartaaj Walia, a sophomore majoring in history and neuroscience, was apprehensive about the utility of the calculator and said personal expenses are difficult to predict.

“I don’t know how useful this calculator will be,” Walia said. “It’s really hard to predict how much a university education will actually cost.”

Others said the calculator would not have been very useful because it only considers need-based aid.

“They made it clear that my family wouldn’t get any aid, so [the calculator] would not have been very relevant to me,” said Caroline Prado, a sophomore majoring in business administration.


Nandini Ruparel contributed to this report.