The Trouble With Calculators

October is rapidly approaching. What’s so special about October? According to the Higher Education Opportunity Act (HEOA), any Title IV institution receiving federal money will have to have a cost calculator on their website by October 29th. As this deadline approaches, tools are beginning to be made available to help you meet the requirements of the law. The problem is that while it’s easy (generally speaking) to comply with the law, it’s quite hard to do it in a way that makes the tool easily usable by prospective students.

So, what’s the issue? Well, the least of the problems is the fact that the law was written by people without the slightest clue as to what “usability” means. In typical fashion, they threw down requirements and expected us to solve the problem. However, meeting the requirements involves calculating a relatively complex amount of data, forcing asking users to fill out detailed forms to get the cost of attendance (in some cases, needing to answer as many as 48 questions). So, in demanding we make available the net cost, they’ve outlined a tool that is, at its base implementation, something people won’t use.

The Requirements

You may already have a calculator on your site (you certainly should, you’re selling a product, and people want to know what it costs), but it’s important to realize that it may need modified to meet federal requirements. Here are the main things:

  • Average “net price” is the yearly price actually charged to first-time, full-time undergraduate students minus the amount of aid given to all students divided by the number of students getting aid. So NP = Cost – (total aid given/# students getting aid)
  • Include data elements to approximate the student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC), such as income, number in family, and dependency status or factors that estimate dependency status (An institution may use either Federal Methodology or Institutional Methodology to approximate the student’s EFC)
  • You can ask for additional information to better compute net cost, but you cannot require any data beyond the base requirements of the Federal Template (see below).

Additionally, when calculating the final net cost, institutions must give the user:

  • Estimated total price of attendance
  • Estimated tuition and fees
  • Estimated room and board
  • Estimated books and supplies
  • Estimated other expenses (personal expenses, transportation, etc.)
  • Estimated total grant aid
  • Estimated net price (calculated as much as practical given appropriate need and/or merit based aid)
  • Percent of the cohort (full-time, first-time students) that received grant aid
  • Caveats and disclaimers, as indicated in the HEOA

To put it simply, go look at the federal template below. Whatever it does, you need to do.

Current Options

Cost calculators should be considered one of your best recruitment tools on your website, regardless of the federal mandate. The 2010 Noel-Levitz E-Expectations data showed that 68% of prospective students indicated that calculators had a lot of value to them, with nearly a third saying it actively improved their perception of the school. Luckily, there are a number of paths you can take to get a calculator on your site, if you are still wondering what to do.

Federal Template

Federal Template

Federal Template

This is the little guy that started it all. It is a great place to start if you need an idea of how this thing should work. Also, if you simply need to get something up and running, this will satisfy all of the base HEOA requirements. You’ll need quite a bit of data from your financial aid people (but that’s true no matter what), but with that in hand, you just fill out a couple pages of forms and it will give you a zip file to download that’s customized with your data. The Good: it’s a quick, canned solution. The Bad: it’s ugly, it’s inaccessible, and it’s not real easy to customize. This really should probably be considered just a starting point, rather than a long term solution. For instance, the final result page isn’t particularly user friendly and doesn’t do much to present the final cost in a way that makes it stand out. If you just need to get a handle on where you should be starting, this will definitely get you rolling.


Of course, we can always make our own calculators with a little PHP, HTML, and JavaScript – provided it conforms to the minimum specs of the federal template mentioned above. You could argue, as I did, that it’s not in our best interests to do this ourselves though. Actually, I’m on the fence in this particular case. Developing a web tool like this isn’t quite on par with building an entire software platform. However, that said, are you ready to take on the responsibility with keeping up on the federal guidelines, providing a framework for your financial aid office to input data, and do it all in a user experience pleasing manner? Are you confident you can present the results in a friendly manner that beats out the 3rd party offerings? Will you spend less man hours developing and maintaining it than what it would cost to buy ready made? Can you commit to keeping up the maintenance and improving the functionality over time? Have fun.

Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA)

VSA Calculator

VSA Calculator

Actually, VSA doesn’t have a lot of information floating around about their calculator unless you’re a member (members produce documents that break down the metrics and demographics of their schools in a way that lets you compare colleges in an apples to apples manner). If you are, the calculator is an optional tool that is available to you, which is a nice little perk if you’re strapped for cash. One document that did stand out was the flowchart they put out about how the calculator works. Looking at this defines just why current calculator solutions are so bad. If you need a four page flowchart to define how someone figures out what your school costs, it’s too complicated. They have relatively limited options for customization though, and are reliant on JavaScript for functionality. However, if you’re a VSA member, this is decidedly a step up from the default federal template, and it’s my understanding that it is freely available to member schools.


Noel-Levitz True Cost Calculator

Noel-Levitz True Cost Calculator

The folks at Noel-Levitz were fast to jump on the calculator train, and were one of the first (if not the first) to have an offering to the market back in July of 2010. That said, I will call them the best of a bad breed (sorry guys). The advantage is, they are actively committed to making sure their tools come out top notch. Why am I not totally on board here? Accessibility is still a problem they need to address (in all fairness, no different from anything else I’ve seen so far). Also, the accordion style form they implemented as you proceed through the calculator runs the risk of intimidating or confusing users. This is supported by their own data which shows an 81% completion rate of scholarship estimates, dropping to a 39% completion rate of full estimates. That’s a major dropoff in the funnel that I would argue is a clear indication of usability problems (again, not unique to Noel-Levitz, I’d expect similar results for others as well). The output isn’t terrible though, for the users who are willing to stick it out to the end. They also allow pretty complete customization of data collection. You can try it out at their demo site.

Additional vendors

Sorry, I don’t know anything about these folks, aside from the fact that they made calculators for higher ed. If anyone is using either of these options (or something else entirely), it’d be nice to hear your assessment in the comments.

The Problems

Back in 2009, Robert Collins, vice president of student financial aid at the University of Phoenix, commented on cost calculators: “There is a tradeoff between accuracy and complexity. You need to balance the way that you present this to students.” He couldn’t be more right. And as soon as you start talking about things like EFC, you’re already making the calculator more complicated than a normal user should need to put up with. Cost calculators are a beautiful disaster of factors, combining UX with federal law, internal campus politics, math, and programming. Basically, I feel like we can break this down to three major problems.


There are two big issues I see with the data of calculators. The first is the array required to determine aid for EFC. It’s a pain to input and visitors will rarely know their anticipated EFC when filling out the form. Without EFC involved, you’re talking pretty simple stuff. The second main issue is that while HEOA gives us minimum requirements, it has set up an arms race condition for schools. Financial aid offices are terrified of providing inaccurate cost estimates, and will be driven to compete with schools providing lower or more accurate figures. They are bound to get hung up on minute details of financial aid calculations. You can’t do that though without causing more setup work and making the user end more complex. The problem is, you can not and should not be trying to port your full blown aid calculation algorithms to a simple cost calculator. It should be just that: simple. People will understand it’s just an estimate, like the sticker price on a car in a commercial. Some calculators ask for information that simply should not be necessary for a simple cost calculation, like age of oldest parent or number of people in household. A prospective student shouldn’t be worrying about that kind of data until they are filling out the FAFSA. Period. The less data you require from the end use, the better conversions will be.


It’s a fact of life. The more fields you put on a form, and the more steps it takes to fill out, the worse your conversions on that form will be. Every usability expert on the planet will tell you that. As mentioned, the Noel-Levitz numbers back it up. On top of it, there aren’t a lot of high schoolers floating around that know what their parents reported income was for the past year, or have an idea how much their parents will be contributing to their tuition payments. Towards the end of the article, you’ll see a gallery of current calculators. Some of them look like they want to actively discourage people from using them. At the end of the calculations, many of the tools spit out so many numbers and dollar values that you need an accountant to figure out which one you should be paying attention to. And if they are doing something wrong, offer clear and obvious error messages. Don’t deny them results if they forget to tell you how many cats they own. And for gods’ sake, don’t reload the form page empty if there’s an error and force them to re-enter all their data. Stop hating your users, please.


I was stunned, STUNNED, when the federal calculator template came out. Besides the fact that it’s ugly, it’s inaccessible. It relies entirely on JavaScript, doesn’t label fields, and doesn’t include any kind of helper mark up like ARIA. In fact, all the major calculators I’ve tested above fail with JavaScript turned off at the very least. None were ARIA compliant, and most didn’t even do proper input field labeling. Don’t get me started on the tabled layouts either. Even though it’s not mentioned in the HEOA, accessibility is still a requirement for a host of other reasons. The fact that vendors who are used to working in higher ed have ignored that fact blows me away. You only need to take care of this once and you’ll be done, and you’ll have a better tool as a result. Don’t make me come over there.

Improvements to Consider

Here are a few thoughts to consider that would help your overall calculator. Additionally, I’d love to hear what you think would help as well, just drop a comment.

  • Make it accessible. Please. This isn’t hard to do.
  • Process user input server side. Stop doing it all in client side JavaScript.
  • Use JavaScript and AJAX to progressively enhance the calculator. It’s okay to make it pretty and responsive and interactive, but don’t do it at the cost of functionality without JavaScript. It should still work without it.
  • Start with a SIMPLE cost calculation that requires the absolute minimum amount of information possible from the user. Once they complete that, offer to give them a more accurate assessment if they are willing to take a few minutes and share more detailed information. That way you don’t discourage window shoppers.
  • Make use of nice, visual price representations. The Noel-Levitz True Cost Calculator has done a nice job at this. The Google Charts API can help the DIY folks. People process visual data faster and easier than text.
  • Make the total cost obvious. Like crazy obvious. You have to present a lot of numbers under the guidelines, you don’t want the most important number lost in the mix.
  • Give users a channel to get help quickly: phone, Twitter, Facebook – whatever will get them answers fastest while they are at the calculator.
  • Make it easy to get the users into an admissions funnel after they’ve calculated costs.
  • Include helpful tips that can lower the total cost further.
  • Let me reiterate making the initial experience as simple as possible. We’re talking Fisher-Price simple here.

Additional Reading

Some Examples From Around the Web

These aren’t necessarily highlights of good calculator design. Rather, I just went out and grabbed a random sampling of what people are doing. Actually, if I had to grade us based on this sampling, we aren’t doing so hot. At best, some of these are functional, at worst, they are outright confusing. But I still think it’s worth seeing how others are approaching the problem, if only to get an idea of what to be avoiding.