A simplified financial-aid calculator — much easier to use than the federally mandated calculators that most colleges create — has begun spreading beyond Wellesley College, where it began two years ago.
The spread, to the University of Virginia and Williams College, starting Monday, raises the possibility that more colleges will follow and that information on actual college costs will become more widely available. Currently, many low- and middle-income families are unaware of how much financial aid is potentially available to them, research has found.
The simpler calculator has been popular at Wellesley — a women’s college outside Boston and the alma mater of Hillary Clinton — since it appeared. About 42,000 people have used it in the last two years, compared with only about 5,000 who used Wellesley’s earlier financial-aid calculator.
“We want it to be as easy as possible for prospective students and families to know how much it would cost to attend Williams,” said William Dudley, the provost at the college, in northwestern Massachusetts. “People know our sticker price — $60,000. They don’t realize that the average family receiving financial aid is paying $13,000.”
The original calculator — which a 2008 law required colleges to create — can be daunting. It warns potential users on its welcome screen to “set aside 15-20 minutes” and asks a battery of questions.
That calculator, Mr. Dudley said, is “long enough and complicated enough that there is evidence that not enough people use them and not enough people who start them finish them.”
The newer calculator, designed by Phillip Levine, a Wellesley economist, does not ask students or parents to log in; anyone can use it. And it asks people to respond to only about eight questions, about family structure, annual income, home value and other financial basics.
The University of Virginia adds one question: whether the user is a resident of Virginia. As a public college, Virginia charges substantially less to residents.
Once the answers are entered, the calculator provides a “best estimate” that it says should be accurate for about 90 percent of families.
Wellesley, Williams and Virginia are all highly selective colleges that offer substantial discounts to students from low-income families — discounts that are often big enough to make the true cost less than at colleges with lower sticker prices. In a statement announcing Virginia’s plan to use the new calculator, the university president, Teresa Sullivan, said she hoped it would help “avoid the possibility of losing prospective students due to misperceptions about cost.”
Virginia has one of the most affluent student bodies of any public college in the country. Only about 12 percent of students receive Pell grants, the federal aid program that typically goes to families in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution.
Wellesley is more economically diverse, with close to 20 percent of students receiving Pell grants. Williams has recently been making an effort to become more so, Mr. Dudley said, and about 22 percent of this year’s freshman class receive Pell grants, up from an average of 18 percent in previous years.
Williams’s traditional rival, Amherst College, has been a leader in attracting top low-income students, with about 24 percent of recent freshmen receiving Pell grants.
Both Mr. Dudley and Mr. Levine, the architect of the calculator, said they hoped that many other colleges would begin using it or find other ways to simplify the process of learning about financial aid.
Mr. Levine has recently been interviewing current Wellesley students who used the calculator as applicants, to understand how it affected them. Several have told him that they were surprised at how much aid they were likely to receive, and that the numbers helped overcome their skepticism about applying, he said.