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No Magic Bullet

June 12, 2013

Few single pieces of paper have been greeted with as much fanfare in higher education circles as the Education Department’s “shopping sheet,” meant to provide a standardized one-page summary of a college's financial aid offering to help students easily compare the packages they receive.

The Obama administration has promoted the shopping sheet, and its companion, a searchable online tool called the College Scorecard, as a significant accomplishment. (The scorecard even got a mention in the State of the Union address.) Colleges, on the other hand, reacted with skepticism to the form, an alternative to the traditional financial aid award letter that’s meant to make it easier for students to compare packages of loans and grants while displaying statistics like average student loan debt and graduation rates for each institution. Those colleges argued that it was too one-size-fits-all and not adaptable enough to the circumstances of individual students.

Now that most traditional-age students have been admitted to, and chosen, a college to attend this fall, though, it appears that the shopping sheet made relatively few ripples in its first year in use, admissions officers at colleges and high school counselors say.

For the most part, students and families weren’t aware of the shopping sheet -- and other tools, such as the government’s net price calculators, intended to make college pricing more transparent and choices easier. Some blamed the Education Department, for not promoting it enough; others blamed the format of the sheet, or themselves for not making sure that students were aware.

The shopping sheet’s fate in its first year is significant because transparency and disclosures have become watchwords on Capitol Hill as Congress prepares to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. If lawmakers have their way, students and families will probably be faced with more, not less, information about institutions from colleges and the Education Department in the coming years. The last reauthorization of the federal law governing financial aid programs, in 2008, created many of the requirements -- including net price calculators -- that led to increased disclosures in the past two years.

“We’ll probably promote it more aggressively as we move forward,” said Jim Cotter, director of admissions at Michigan State University, which has embraced the shopping sheet. “I don’t think it’s a game-changer, necessarily. I do think it’s another piece in the puzzle.”

A Push for Clarity

Financial aid award letters, which inform students about their grant and loan options for the upcoming academic year, have long been criticized for impenetrability or worse -- the array of state, federal and institutional aid options can be difficult to decipher, particularly for first-generation college students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The federal “shopping sheet,” introduced last July by the Education Department and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, isn’t mandatory for most colleges to use with most students. Colleges participating in the Department of Veterans Affairs "principles of excellence” are required to use the shopping sheet for prospective students who are also veterans. About 700 colleges and universities chose to use the shopping sheet in its first year, although those colleges included some large state systems, such as the State University of New York. (Note: This paragraph has been corrected to update the number of colleges using the Shopping Sheet.)

For the most part, colleges say the shopping sheet didn’t make much of a splash: few students seemed aware that they existed or referenced them when talking to admissions and financial aid officers. Nor did the net price calculator, a tool first put into use in 2011 that allows students to estimate how much tuition will cost them after federal and institutional grants.

“We certainly put a lot of effort into creating the shopping sheet and making it available to our prospective students,” said Judy Keyes, director of financial aid at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Massachusetts was one of four states to adopt the shopping sheet for its entire state system last year, and the shopping sheet launched in March, Keyes said. “We haven’t received a lot of feedback. There’s not a lot of evidence to say whether it’s helpful or not.”

Interest in the net price calculator at UMass Boston can be quantified, she said, but the results there were arguably even worse: about 750 hits since the university launched the web-based net price calculator in October 2011. That’s despite increasing concerns about college costs among students and families. Prospective students are more concerned about debt and tuition prices than they’ve been since at least the 1980s, Keyes said.

“I think it’s going to be something that eventually may catch on, but it has been a little slow to take hold,” Keyes said.

Another problem, admissions and financial aid officers say, is that the few students and families who are making use of the Education Department’s tools tend to be a savvy group already. First-generation students and others who might be more confused when choosing a college often aren’t aware that the calculators and shopping sheets exist.

“What I would say from talking to high school counselors is they don’t even know that it’s out there,” said Mary Nucciarone, associate director of financial aid at the University of Notre Dame, who said she’s dubious about the “one-size-fits-all” nature of the shopping sheet. “If the purpose was to have low-income students see college as a possibility, that’s not really who is using calculators.”

In part, that could be because those students have less access to counseling resources than do their more well-off peers. But college counselors say they, too, don’t remember an aggressive effort by the Education Department to promote the shopping sheets and other tools.

“They’re still too new -- most people don’t know they exist,” said Bob Bardwell, school counselor and director of guidance and student support services at Monson High School in Massachusetts, who has written positively about the president’s higher education initiatives.

Josh Boshoven, counselor for continuing education at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., said he had trouble distinguishing the net price calculator, College Scorecard and the shopping sheet from one another. “Since I don’t know what it was, that should already give you a clue,” Boshoven said.

Most of his students who apply to multiple institutions apply to between four and seven colleges, he said, and they’re often confused by the variations between financial aid letters once they’re admitted.

Bardwell, who works in a public school with fewer than 500 students, works with what might be a key audience for a shopping sheet, which is aimed mostly at first-time, full-time students comparing financial aid offers from more than one institution. (The majority of financial aid applicants don’t fit that profile, either because they’re returning students or because they’re not comparing different institutions.)

The vast majority of Bardwell’s students, almost 90 percent, go on to higher education, and on average they apply to three or four colleges apiece. In many cases, families become confused by the different financial aid offers, he said, especially if they’re looking at “five different schools with five different letters and five different sets of numbers.”

He partially blames himself that more of those students weren’t aware of the shopping sheet. “I didn’t do as good as a job as I could have to publicize it and to push it,” he said. “There will be some families that will find it on their own, but most of the folks going through this process need to be hand-held.”

 

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