The U.S. Department of Education mandated that all colleges install a "net price calculator" on their websites last fall, according to the New York Times. The calculator is designed to estimate the actual cost of a college, taking into consideration the factors that influence financial aid offers.

The College Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have created generic calculators, but Bowdoin launched its own version to better represent its unique methodology in determining aid.

Admissions is hopeful that the net price calculator will eliminate what Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Scott Meiklejohn refers to as "sticker shock,"—when the high price of tuition deters prospective students from applying.

The calculator "potentially addresses one of my biggest concerns, which is that people who investigate Bowdoin might see that it costs $55,000 a year and say, 'Oh forget it,'" said Meiklejohn. "If the calculator helps people understand that the average grant is $35,000 and that this actually could be affordable given the strength of our aid program, then that's a good thing."

Now that Bowdoin has sent acceptance letters and finalized financial aid packages to admitted students, admissions can begin to measure the calculator's accuracy. 1,300 people have completed Bowdoin's net price calculator since it came out in October. The average grant displayed on the calculator for those 1,300 was very close to the actual average grant that Bowdoin gives.

"That's one piece of data that says our calculator seems to represent our process pretty well," said Meiklejohn. "Which is what we wanted."

Despite this reassuring statistic, it is still early in the process to make any conclusions about Bowdoin's price calculator. Admissions is still establishing a balance between complexity and simplicity that will yield accurate results.

"We know a little bit now," said Meiklejohn. "We haven't even been through one full cycle yet. We'll see, we may have to tweak it, make it shorter, longer, change it in some ways so that people will get the most out of it."

The calculator offers a generic estimate of the net price, as it cannot take into account the specific conditions that determine a student's financial package.

"There are so many individual family financial circumstances," said Meiklejohn. "That's why the work of Steve Joyce and Mike Bartini [directors of student aid] is so important. Like we do with applications, they read everyone's submissions and understand everyone's unique circumstance."

Because of the inherent limitations of an online estimator, admissions continues to view the actual financial aid office as the ultimate arbiter of the fairness and success of aid packages.

"To me, the most important thing about our financial aid program is do the people to whom we offer financial aid accept, and do the people feel like the aid we're offering is enough to make it work?" said Meiklejohn. "Does the calculator help people understand that? I think, with a little more usage, we'll have to see what people say."