Congressional gridlock could imperil a new effort to make comparing college costs easier.

Last week senators from competing parties representing districts with two Big 10 University football competitors (Democrat Al Franken whose domain includes the University of Minnesota and Republican Charles Grassley with the University of Iowa) joined to introduce a bill to force colleges to make their Web-based college affordability tools, called “net price calculators,” for families easier to find on the Internet and easier to use and understand.

While the legislation has sponsors from both parties and is a companion to a House counterpart that boasts the same, in this stalled Congress a bill needs more than good intentions and the aura of bipartisanship to become law.

The House measure introduced in December has yet to have a hearing in Congress despite sponsorship by frequent vocal competitors on other issues, California Republican Darrell Issa and Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings, and support from National Association of Financial Aid Administrators, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and consumer groups.

Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, said the calculators have suffered from a lack of clarity, consistency and visibility ever since they were mandated by Congress in 2008.

Asher said they often fail to achieve Congress’s primary aim of having the calculators provide ball park estimates of costs at competing schools before the students take the time and money needed to fill out applications.

The good news the calculators can provide to high schoolers and their parents is that when all expenses and aid are combined, the college of their choice could be more affordable than a public university in their state, she said.

She notes a lot of families decide on where a youngster should go on sticker price alone.

“Sticker price doesn’t tell you that much. Tuition and fees don’t tell the whole cost. A student needs books, housing, food, enough time not working at job to study and go to class,” she notes.

Many students actually don’t pay the sticker price because of grants and aid, Asher pointed out.

One of the biggest complaint about the calculators among consumer advocates is they can make apples-to-apples comparisons among institutions of higher education difficult, because they have an overabundance of questions on very personal financial information that can scare prospective students away from using them.

Another common gripe is colleges can use their Web sites to take the focus away from the net price and lead the eyes to cost numbers that may appear smaller but leave out the price of loans students will have to pay back.

Potentially the biggest benefit for families in the House and Senate bills is they both authorize the Secretary of Education to create a Web site that would let students answer one set of questions one time and get net price estimates from multiple colleges.