Most previous efforts to introduce transparency to college financial aid have not resulted in their intended changes. But a new policy that the White House announced this past Sunday has been described as a game changer. And it is.
Beginning in 2016 for the 2017-18 academic year, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid will be available earlier -- in October rather than January -- and students will be able to use income information from tax returns completed two years before they apply rather than the previous year. Allowing students to use this so-called prior-prior year (PPY) income data for the FAFSA moves the financial aid process forward in unprecedented ways.
When I began my career in admissions 24 years ago, my standard spiel included the following line: “Don’t rule out any college because of its sticker price, because you have no idea how much any college will cost until you apply, get admitted, and hear about scholarships and financial aid.” That line is just as relevant today, despite the changing landscape for higher education and admissions.
It has not been the most reassuring statement for students, and it has assumed a leap of faith from many families that we’ve not yet earned. But it has represented the reality of the college search and selection process. That reality has opened colleges and universities up to criticism that we are being elusive about cost and price and have not been providing the transparency we should to close the deal on a four-year partnership with students and families.
It has been a problematic aspect of the college search and selection process, but one on which work has continued to be done, with varying levels of success, to introduce simplicity and clarity.
First, there was the U.S. Department of Education’s mandated Net Price Calculator (NPC). But unfortunately, the NPC has done nothing to address the wait-and-see approach to paying for college. Instead, the NPC simply added another layer of complication and estimation that does nothing to provide the kind of insight we had hoped to give students, simplify the process of applying for financial aid or help families coming to terms with final cost of an advanced degree. (The truth is that, for many colleges, the NPC added more administrative costs, which are passed along to students.)
The Department of Education and the Gates Foundation have also called for simplifying the FAFSA as the solution. But higher education and the financial aid world seem to have only lukewarm support for making the FAFSA easier, because it could be oversimplified to the point that it is no longer useful or accurate. And some people predict that such efforts will lead more colleges to use more customized institutional forms or adopt other standardized applications for financial aid like the College Board’s College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile.
This spring the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators issued a report about implementing prior-prior year income data for the FAFSA and some of the implications. Are there concerns and uncertainties about it? Yes. Will this force colleges and universities to change? Yes. Will traditional admissions practices be impacted? Yes. Will other enrollment professionals and I have to get creative to respond to a new admissions calendar? Yes.
Yet, despite those uncertainties and concerns, PPY, a truly student-centered solution, is ultimately good for the college search and selection process and the feds should be commended for this forward-thinking simplification of the financial aid process. Most important, will it simplify processes for families and make our complex system a bit easier for them to navigate? Undoubtedly.
Some of the major benefits include:
PPY will allow students to file their FAFSA much earlier. Instead of waiting until Jan. 1, after college applications have mostly been submitted, the financial aid application process now will align more closely with timelines for the traditional application process. PPY relies on tax returns and information completed before the senior year, so aid awards can be given much earlier in the recruitment and admissions process, consequently providing students and their families with valuable information about cost earlier.
Some within higher education circles will complain that this new timeline may result in more “shopping” by families from institution to institution, but I can’t imagine it being any worse than it is already. Imagine being able to provide real-time financial aid information to a student when they are most excited about your college, rather than telling them they have to jump through a bunch of hoops and then wait weeks, or even months.
PPY will allow most students to use the IRS’s Data Retrieval Tool. PPY would be a dream come true for those who advocate for simplicity. The Data Retrieval Tool, which is one of more positive developments that we’ve seen to improve the financial aid process in recent years, could be used to complete a FAFSA more accurately and with greater ease.
Moreover, since the FAFSA and financial aid award time frames have not kept pace with that of the college search, using PPY would eliminate the estimating that inevitably leads to confusion, delays and other potential problems in the financial aid process. PPY would also be friendlier to family-owned businesses and those students with complicated tax situations, often requiring extensions beyond April 15 for tax filing -- which does not allow some families to complete accurate tax information during what is now known as financial aid season. And since universal college decision day is May 1, these families often have to make a college choice without all of the necessary information.
PPY will result in more students accessing aid for which they are eligible. Because PPY relies on existing tax information and a new FAFSA could be populated using the Data Retrieval Tool, it has the potential to be more inviting for students who are turned off by the perceived complexity of the FAFSA and therefore opt not to complete it. Why wouldn’t we want to make it easier for these students to apply for and actually receive aid for which they are eligible, instead of having them opt out and ultimately miss out?
These students are likely to take out student loans to pay for college or perhaps take a semester off to earn tuition money -- only never to return. PPY is about access and choice, which are two of the most important defining qualities of the U.S. higher education system. Everyone should be excited about the prospect of greater accessibility to a college degree and realistic choices for paying for it.
If our goals are to provide earlier information about cost, to simplify the application process and to increase access to higher education and to financial aid available, then PPY -- regardless of the potential complications and anxiety for public policy makers and higher education professionals -- is one of the most important changes to the financial aid process in a generation. And, for me, it’s a great development because it is a win for students.
Kent Barnds is vice president of enrollment, communications and planning at Augustana College.
While the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard website may be a scaled-back version of what President Obama first announced on the State University of New York’s own Buffalo campus in 2013, it will be a useful tool for providing the information students and their families need to make decisions about college costs and return on investment.
We agree with President Obama: it’s not a moment too soon for colleges and universities across the nation to be held to a standard of transparency and accountability. The bottom line is that if we really want to take a bite out of student debt, we have to help students understand the true cost of college and what it is they’re paying for. The College Scorecard, which provides new measures of student outcomes at specific colleges and universities -- including graduation rates, median salaries and loan repayment rates -- is an important step in the right direction. Increasing college completion ought to be the next.
While SUNY is proud to offer fair and predictable tuition that is the most affordable of public colleges in the Northeast, we know that controlling tuition alone will not solve the debt crisis. There must also be a strong commitment to ensuring that students finish their degrees as quickly as possible, without taking unnecessary courses and thus ringing up additional cost.
SUNY has committed to increasing the number of degrees awarded annually from 93,000 to 150,000 by 2020. We’re going to ensure that more students complete on time at lower cost. And in doing so, we will expand access to what we know is one of the most valuable commodities in today’s society: a high-quality college degree and an educational experience that has prepared each graduate for workforce success.
SUNY is already a leader when it comes to student completion and achievement, in part because we have created and expanded programs that help students get their degree. Our four-, five- and six-year graduation rates for baccalaureate students surpass those of our national public peers, and the same is true of our two- and three-year graduation rates at the associate level. We launched our own financial literacy tool, SUNY Smart Track, which ensures that students and families understand their borrowing options and responsibilities; we adopted the nation's most comprehensive seamless transfer policy; and we are significantly expanding online course offerings through Open SUNY.
However, we know that until every student completes, we have more work to do.
We recognize the need to continuously improve and welcome effective ways to do so. I am pleased to see that the metrics included in the Scorecard mirror those used to ensure quality through SUNY’s own performance management system, SUNY Excels. In fact, the 64 campuses of SUNY are currently at work fine-tuning performance plans for how they will answer a systemwide call for improved retention and graduation rates, greater financial literacy among students, expanded applied learning and research opportunities, and more. The College Scorecard could help us measure our progress on some of those goals, both within SUNY and in comparison to others nationally. It will allow us to identify the programs and interventions that really move the dial on student completion so we can take them to scale across our university system.
I am especially encouraged by the administration’s commitment to adding Student Achievement Measure (SAM) data, which accounts for the outcomes of transfer students, to the Scorecard. A large number of students move in and out of institutions or transfer without a degree, which means that many colleges and universities have a majority of students that the federal system would otherwise not count. Throughout this process, I have stressed the importance of SAM, joining my colleagues in the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities just recently in a final push to use this data because it is so vital in providing students and their families with the complete picture on degree attainment. At SUNY alone, nearly 30,000 students transfer annually among our institutions, and last year, 35 percent of all our undergraduate degrees were awarded to transfer students.
In pivoting from the original proposal to rate colleges and universities -- many of which have significantly different missions and serve vastly different student bodies -- and ultimately adding in SAM data, the Scorecard will also account for the diversity of institutions and the students they serve. As a public institution with a founding commitment to access for New Yorkers, we see transparency and accountability as fundamental to helping parents and students understand opportunities and challenges as they navigate an increasingly complex cradle-to-career pipeline.
I applaud President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan for recognizing, as SUNY has, that data must be a driving factor as higher education works toward continued improvement. I look forward to working with my colleagues in higher education and with our federal partners in a continuing effort to bring to light the most comprehensive and accurate data available to help students make informed choices.
Nancy Zimpher is the chancellor of the State University of New York.
Here’s the good news about the new College Scorecard: no rankings. In dropping its proposed plan, the Obama administration showed recognition of the difficulty -- indeed, the impossibility -- of providing students and their families with measurements that could determine which colleges offer “best value” and “worst value.”
The administration had hoped to come up with an easy-to-understand website for measuring value that would help students and families understand the return on investment they could expect for the cost of a college education. That effort proved entirely unworkable to most people who studied the proposal closely. So we all owe the U.S. Department of Education thanks for scrapping that proposal.
To begin with, measuring the value of an education in monetary terms fundamentally mischaracterizes the nature of higher education. The highest learning is no more a commodity than one's life is a commodity. Students need an education that will help them earn a living, but they also wish for a fulfilling life, one that goes beyond any economic measure.
Students are looking for many different things from their time in college, and there is enormous diversity among colleges in what they offer a student. What is valuable to one student may be of little value to another. Needs and results will vary from student to student even within an institution, let alone across different institutions.
The Obama administration’s aim is to provide transparency about factors to consider in choosing a college. This is a laudable goal. Yet the new College Scorecard continues to place a premium on economic rather than noneconomic valuations. That is regrettable.
My initial impression is that the website is largely about price, cost, financial aid, success in securing a job, ability to pay off debt, courses of study offered and the size of the student body. There is also one indicator about whether the school is located in an urban, suburban or rural area.
But what about the rigor and breadth of instruction? Don’t students and parents want to know whether a student can expect to graduate with a firm grasp on how to think about the world, and how to communicate their thought in speech and writing -- all skills that will help them much more in life than any specialized career training? And what about meaningful faculty-student interaction? Surely students would like to know whether they will be likely to end up in small discussion classes or large, anonymous lecture classes. And what about the richness of student life, religious affiliation, cultural resources in the surrounding community, demographic diversity and other factors that may indicate the quality of life that a student can expect during his or her studies? It does not seem that the College Scorecard provides any guidance about such matters, which can be crucial in deciding which college to attend.
There are also serious questions about the sources and relevance of the data, which seems to be several years out of date. Will families reviewing Scorecard information realize that many colleges and universities -- including my own -- have added large amounts of funding for financial aid during the past few years? Or will they simply reject some institutions based on inaccurate data? The U-CAN website (University and College Accountability Network) designed by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, after extensive testing with families about the kinds of information that would be useful, has much more current and comprehensive data on this topic.
The new College Scorecard website also tries to provide information about the average salaries that graduates of each college earn six years after enrolling. It is difficult to know where this information comes from. Does it take into account how many students continue on to graduate school? If not, the averages will seem to be lower than they really should be.
The Scorecard apparently tries to compensate for graduate students in its salary data by not counting former students who are in deferment on student loans. But for many reasons, not all of a college’s former graduates borrow money, and consequently do not defer loans while in graduate school. These graduate students will turn up as having no income or minimal income -- even if being in graduate school is their intended goal, and their undergraduate institution prepared them well for graduate study.
And in any case, earnings are more related to the choice of occupation than to the choice of college. And what about controlling salary data for location? If large numbers of a college’s graduates settle in relatively low-cost areas of the country, the average salaries for their students will be lower than at other colleges.
Also, this emphasis on earning is at odds with President Obama’s emphasis on the need for more teachers, social workers, geriatric care workers and child care workers. None of these professions is what one would call highly compensated.
And why does the site use the six-year graduation rate as a measure of success? Why not use the four-year graduation rate? Surely families don’t really want to know how many students take six years to go through a four-year program.
But one of the most disturbing aspects of this scorecard is its reliance on income data retrieved from the IRS and matched with student loan information possessed by the Department of Education. One had the notion that the IRS data would be protected from use by any other federal agency. And how is the employment data ever to be verified if the public does not have access to information that is likely to have the consequences that this scorecard may have?
On top of all this, as American Council on Education President Molly Corbett Broad has already pointed out, no external review was performed before the site went live. Now that college officials are getting a chance to look at it, many are seriously concerned about the reliability of the data.
The good news on that score is that there are already valuable tools in place. One of the best is the U-CAN website already mentioned. This resource provides comparable information about each participating college, with links to more detailed information if desired. I think that this resource would be far more helpful to students and their families than the new Scorecard.
The Obama administration has more support than it might realize from the very colleges and universities it is trying to evaluate. We too wish to be as transparent as possible about what is going on at our schools, about what it costs to attend and about what our alumni do with their lives after graduation. Together we want to help prospective students make responsible choices that suit their circumstances and their dreams for the future.
The new College Scorecard, however, seems to have a great potential to mislead, misinform and discourage students and their families. Talk about defeating the purpose.
Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College, in Annapolis, Md.
The University of Massachusetts Medical School has throughout its 53-year history admitted only Massachusetts residents, but that is about to change, The Boston Globereported. The medical school, in Worcester, will continue to admit 125 Massachusetts residents a year, but it will add 25 other students. They will pay about $55,000 a year, compared to the $38,000 a year for Massachusetts residents. The out-of-state students will all be from the United States.
The Texas State University System on Thursday announced a Freshman Year for Free program in which students can earn a full year of credit through massive open online courses offered by edX and coordinated by a new nonprofit called the Modern States Education Alliance. The only costs to students would be either Advanced Placement or College Level Examination Program tests, which would be passed after completing various MOOCs. Appropriate scores would be required on the tests to receive credit from Texas State campuses.
U.S. News & World Report's rankings are out today, and while the methodology hasn't changed, the way the rankings operation calculates "assessment of excellence" (widely known as the reputation survey) has changed, apparently in response to the participation rates of college presidents and high school guidance counselors. Survey responses for those two groups make up 22.5 percent of the formula (15 percent from the presidents survey and 7.5 percent from the counselors survey). This part of the rankings has long been criticized. Presidents have been known to rank only their own institutions highly, and many experts say that presidents and guidance counselors seem always to favor historically strong institutions, or the most prestigious colleges over time.
This year 50 percent of presidents in the national universities category responded to the survey, and 46 percent of the leaders of national liberal arts colleges responded. Only 7 percent of high school counselors responded to the survey. While the presidential response rate hasn't fallen dramatically in recent years, as recently as 2005, 67 percent of presidents responded. The drop has prompted some to question whether enough presidents were responding for the survey to be meaningful. So this year, U.S. News for the first time combined the last two years of surveys of presidents. And after several years of combining the past two years of high school counselors, U.S. News is combining the last three years for that survey. The rankings methodology allows those who responded in multiple years to be counted each year they participate.
Robert Morse, who heads the rankings operation at U.S. News, gave this reason via email for the changes: "In both cases, this was done to increase the number of ratings each college received from the academic raters and high school counselors and to reduce the year-to-year volatility in the average peer score and high school counselor score."
We'll let other publications (and college public relations offices) boast about scores. But we can tell you that those at top of the various lists are … those whom you'd expect to find there.
The University of California at Berkeley last week announced the African-American Initiative, which will aim to increase support for black students and to attract more black students to the campus. Berkeley is banned by a state constitutional amendment from considering race in admissions, and black undergraduate enrollment is about 3 percent, less than half the share of the black population in the state. Berkeley officials say that they need a critical mass of black students. A key part of the new plan will be a $20 million scholarship fund, to be administered privately to avoid violating the state ban on consideration of race. The fund will offer scholarships to black students who are admitted, hoping to attract more of them to enroll.
Swarthmore College announced Tuesday that it is keeping its requirement that applicants submit SAT or ACT scores, but that the writing portions on both exams will not be required. "We value writing, and it is of critical importance in being a successful college student,” said a statement from Jim Bock, vice president and dean of admissions. “But the essay sections of both exams have now been made optional by the testing agencies and we believe there are other ways to determine success in college. These new requirements will better serve our holistic review of new student applications.”