Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The University of California gets this math problem wrong

U.S. colleges are required by law to post a "net price calculator" on their websites to help prospective students and their parents estimate the true cost of attendance once financial aid is factored in. The calculators ask for information on a family's finances (you can do it anonymously) and household size so the college can produce a realistic estimate of costs.

But the calculators at five University of California schools include an incorrectly worded question that prevents users from getting an accurate estimate -- or any estimate at all.

The calculator at UC Berkeley, for instance, asks the user for "Number in college." When you move your mouse over the question for more information, it explains, "Total number of people in your household that were in college during the last academic year, including your Parent(s)."

For many families -- such as those who are getting ready to send their eldest child to college -- the answer to that question will be zero. But if you enter 0, you get an error message: "'Number in College' must be greater than zero."

Huh? Why can't you enter zero when that's the accurate answer?

Here's why: The question is worded wrong. It should ask how many people in the household will be in college next year. At that point, you would theoretically have at least one person -- your freshman student -- in college. But the question doesn't ask that.

Berkeley isn't the only UC campus to get this wrong. It's also wrong at the calculators offered by UC San Diego, UC Santa Cruz, UC Merced and UC Irvine.

While many families will get an error message, they at least will realize at that point that something's wrong with the calculator. But families who already have a child in college and who follow the calculator's instructions will end up with a misleading number and may not know it.

Let's say the oldest child in the family is already in college and the parents are preparing to send off their second oldest. If the parents reply to the question "Total number of people in your household that were in college during the last academic year, including your Parent(s)" by honestly saying "1" (when they really should say "2"), they will get an inaccurate estimate. That's not a small problem: It could influence where the second child goes to college.

UPDATE, Oct. 7, 2019: UC Santa Cruz has corrected the wording on its page. The other four UCs, however, still have it wrong. 

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