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Colleges to Use 'Shopping Sheet'

June 6, 2012

WASHINGTON -- Ten presidents and chancellors of colleges and state higher education systems announced Tuesday that they would begin providing students with clearer information on college costs and financial aid. The transparency effort, which includes several presidents and system heads who met with President Obama earlier this year, is the first collaboration between college leaders and the administration on tuition prices.

The colleges, including higher education systems from four states -- Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Texas -- will provide a version of the one-page college "shopping sheet" developed by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to inform students about what they will pay for a year of college. The sheet, intended to help students and parents compare colleges using standardized data, will include the price of a year of college, including tuition, fees and other costs; the net price after grants (but not loans) are taken into account, and the estimated monthly payments for any loans included in the aid package.

The consumer bureau's effort is voluntary, and whether other colleges will follow suit remains to be seen. But the early adopters' commitment is significant in part because colleges have historically resisted attempts to standardize financial aid award notifications, saying that requiring all award letters to look the same would be too inflexible for many students' situations. (See related article here.)

The list of colleges committing to the new forms -- along with the four state systems, Arizona State, North Carolina A&T State, and Syracuse Universities, Miami-Dade and Vassar Colleges, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will participate -- includes some leaders of public colleges who met with President Obama in December, as the administration was beginning its push on tuition pricing.

“This is just part of a larger strategy, but we are very excited about being an early adopter,” said Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York System, who met with Obama in December. The SUNY system is the largest participant announced Tuesday.

Providing clearer information about college prices and financial aid will benefit colleges and students alike, she said. “I think we as institutions will be recruiting a more informed student body, and that’s good for everybody,” Zimpher said.

During a meeting with Vice President Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Tuesday, the presidents discussed ways to improve the shopping sheet, said Catharine Hill, president of Vassar College. The sheet aims to compare students’ financial aid awards with institutional averages, and much of the discussion centered on ways to make that data “representative and clear,” said Hill, whose scholarly work has been as a higher education economist. The presidents also continued a broader conversation with White House officials about rising tuition prices.

While colleges have objected to standardizing financial aid award letters in the past, arguing that a standardized format would be too inflexible and wouldn’t serve many students’ needs, Hill said that the shopping sheet wouldn’t conflict with the college’s existing financial aid notifications.

“It won’t be inconsistent with anything else we do,” Hill said. “We send them in the direction of more information if they want more information. I liked the idea of a summary sheet, in fact.”

Colleges will begin using the sheets in the 2013-14 academic year.

 

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