Helping Students Understand the Cost of College

This post originally appeared in The Quick and the Ed.

For many students, the excitement of opening an acceptance letter is quickly overshadowed with anxiety over how to pay for their education.  Colleges try to allay the concerns of students and their families with another letter, one that details the student’s financial aid award. This letter explains the financial aid students will receive and shows how much they will be expected to pay upfront—their overall “net price.” Unfortunately, because each institution creates its own letter, it is nearly impossible for students to understand how much they will owe and to compare packages among institutions. Today, Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) introduced bipartisan legislation that seeks to end the confusing nature of these letters by requiring all institutions to adopt one standard letter.

Current financial aid award letters make it difficult for all but the savviest of students to figure out their financial aid. Fundamental questions like “How much will I owe when I graduate?” and “What will my monthly payments be?” are seemingly hidden, often making the college look like a better deal than it actually is. Many schools package scholarships, grants, work study, and loans all together yielding one seemingly gigantic “award,” even though students will have to pay the loans back. Some letters are riddled with jargon and acronyms, making it almost impossible for students to understand whether the aid is a loan or a grant. Here are just a few examples (including my own award letter) that illustrate just how confusing these letters can be:

Model letter from Georgia Tech Financial Aid Office

Model letter from the University of Texas-Pan American Financial Aid Office

Actual letter from Harvard Graduate School of Education

Franken’s “Understanding the True Cost of College Act” would require institutions to use the same letter—one developed by the Department of Education, in consultation with other federal agencies like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The legislation would require a number of seemingly common-sense measures to help give students and parents the information they need to make informed decisions about paying for college.  The letter must clearly illustrate the full cost of attendance and a calculation of a student’s net price after accounting for grant and scholarship aid. Loans would be kept separate from grants and scholarships. Private loans would be kept separate from federal loans. Institutions would be prevented from using jargon and acronyms. And the letter would also include estimated monthly loan payments on the ten-year standard repayment plan.

CFPB has already been working on a mock-up of such a letter. Compare this with the letters above:

While this mockup doesn’t include all the elements of the legislation and still needs to be field tested, it’s clearly a move in the right direction. College is a serious and (seriously) complicated investment for students and their families. Current financial aid letters at their best are puzzling, but at their worst are downright misleading. At the very least, students should be able to understand exactly how much they will need to take out in loans and what that means for repayment. Thanks to Senator Franken and the co-sponsors of this bill, we are one step closer to helping all students understand the true cost of college.




Rachel Fishman is the deputy director for research with the Education Policy program at New America.