Justice Department halts investigation of discussions among private college leaders on ways to shift spending from non-need-based to need-based aid. Some say the review -- even now that it's over -- has made institutions too nervous to go forward.
A new poll by Citi and Seventeen looks at which expenses related to college students handle themselves and which ones their parents handle. For most items -- including tuition -- the results are mixed. There is one item on which parents are far more likely than students to pay the bill: monthly phone bills.
It wasn't pretty, and advocates for students aren't happy with it. But after almost two years of fits and false starts, Congress on Wednesday passed legislation that would tie interest rates on federal student loans to the market and, at least in the short term, forestall hefty increases that were to hit new borrowers beginning this fall.
The legislation passed the House of Representatives by a wide margin (392-31, with 10 abstentions) after originating in the Senate, which approved it last week. The measure, when signed by President Obama, will reset interest rates on federally guaranteed loans each July based on the previous May's auction of 10-year Treasury bills. Undergraduate loans -- those that are federally subsidized as well as those that are not -- would be set at the Treasury rate plus 2.05 percentage points, while loans for graduate students would be set at 3.6 points above the Treasury rate, and loans for parents at 4.6 percentage points over the T-bill rate. The maximum rate would be capped at 8.25 percent for undergraduate loans, 9.5 percent for graduate student loans, and 10.5 percent for parent loans.
Parents: We can’t possibly afford $60,000 per year for our daughter to go to Medallion University.
College representative: But Medallion University provides financial aid based upon your family’s financial need.
Parents: Oh, that is interesting. Someone told me that Medallion University was need-blind, so I just figured you didn’t care if we couldn’t pay that much.
College representative: If your daughter is admitted to Medallion University, we will calculate your expected family contribution.
Parents: Well, we contribute to our church but we have never made a contribution to Medallion University, but someone told me this is expected in order to get in.
Should we laugh or cry about this exchange? While the conversation is written in English, the parents and college recruiter are not speaking the same language. The college representative is speaking the “Language of Financial Aid” while the parents are speaking a language about paying for college.
I call the former “Financial Aid Speak” and the latter “Payment Language.” To explain college pricing to the American public, higher education administrators must translate their rhetoric to Payment Language so families can make informed decisions about whether they can afford the price.
Actually, college administrators speak several languages in addition to Financial Aid Speak. Vice presidents for finance, for example, speak “Cost Language.” They engage in discussions about balance sheets and expenditures for producing a college education
Like Académie française for French, Cost Language has regulating boards that dictate the standards for word usage. The Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) and the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) regulate the meaning of words, phrases and concepts for finance administrators from the public and private sector, respectively. But administrators correctly hold no expectation that the public would know or even care about the wording of, say, FASB Rules 516 or 517 as a generally accepted accounting principle.
To balance a budget these same vice presidents for finance also estimate the income side of the ledger. Here the language follows not only GASB and FASB rules, but also the more public vernacular of “Tuition, Fees, Room, Board, Transportation, Books, and Other Expenses.” Vice presidents for enrollment management may use additional phrases like the “Cost of Attendance” or a “Comprehensive Fee” to explain the full price of going to college at an institution. They are using Price Language to explain the price of college.
“Ay, there’s the rub,” as the Bard reminds us. Price Language and Cost Language do not explain how much most families, and certainly not low-income families, will actually pay for college. Families must also understand Financial Aid Speak or be left with the impression that everyone pays $60,000 per year. Perhaps many families narrow their choices of where to apply because they are not multilingual, or maybe they speak Price Language and don’t understand Financial Aid Speak.
And why should they? Financial Aid Speak evolved from internal administrative activities at Medallion University -- procedures that now exceed half a century in age. “Expected Family Contribution,” for example, became the shorthand jargon of financial aid officers to explain how much a family would pay after the financial aid distribution to a student.
An “award,” (not to be confused some kind of “prize") has different components, i.e., the “package” is made up of “gift aid” and “self-help.” Ironically, these birthday sounding words reduce the family’s financial obligation, not only by the amount of money available to the family but also according to the admissions priorities of Medallion.
“Scholarships,” or “grants” – the so-called “gift aid” -- reduces the “net price” for a family, while a job or a loan – the so-called “self-help” -- requires labor and repayment. Who is “giving” this gift that requires payment of an unaffordable bill? And is the “help” really for the “self” or a down payment on the school’s operating budget? This language so familiar to the financial aid officers ignores the verbiage that an untrained family uses to consider college affordability.
Add the various proper nouns and one begins to think that Financial Aid Speak is a history exam. Pell, Stafford, Perkins, SEOG, Plus at the federal level, or Lindsay, Herter, Adams, Tsongas at the state level where I live in Massachusetts, are generous programs; but families often must find and recognize eligibility, and complete lengthy forms for these named programs, to receive the intended financial help.
“Net Price,” is the central concept for knowing how much a family pays for a college education. A consumer buying a car or a television or a computer would recognize the concept as the listed price minus any store discounts and rebates. The “Net Price” for a year of college is the price of attendance minus grants and scholarships from any and all sources.
Savings (past resources), wages (present resources), and loans (future resources) – both of student and parents -- describe the assets that a family will use to pay for all of these academic goods and services over time. This is the vocabulary of Payment Language; it is simple, direct, understandable and essential for general understanding of college prices. The public speaks Payment Language every day.
Recent research has shown that over half of the high-achieving students from low-income families never consider selective public and private colleges even though the price of attendance could actually be lower than the college they select.
Entitled “Boston’s Faces of Excellence,” the Boston Globe published the photographs and future plans for the valedictorian from each of the city’s 44 public high schools. The student destinations included selective private universities (Harvard, Boston University, Boston College, Northeastern), flagship state universities (the University of Massachusetts, the University of New Hampshire), state public colleges and universities (Westfield State and Bridgewater State), local colleges (Simmons, Mount Ida), community colleges (Bunker Hill), and undecided.
How many of these students made their choice of college knowing the financial options that were available from all sectors of higher education? Their preferred college could have depended on the best fit for each student, but one suspects that at least some of these students had a conversation that sounded like the one at the beginning of this essay. And for the valedictorians whose surnames are Lopez and Garcia, and who were born outside of the United States, one wonders how Financial Aid Speak translates into the parents’ native tongue.
Financial Aid Speak is a precise language; the verbiage describes what enrollment managers do when they decide about price discounts and eligibility for jobs and loans. Becoming articulate requires years of experience and training. When spoken well, it allows financial aid officers to compare pricing among a large number of college applicants from a variety of financial and academic backgrounds. It also produces an illusion of fairness by using standardized criteria applied equally and professionally to all applicants.
Financial Aid Speak, Cost Language, and Price Language, however, do not use words and phrases that provide adequate explanation to those that need pricing information the most – middle and high school students with low-income parents. Many education experiments indicate that simple, straightforward explanation about college pricing increases the college-going rate and available college options to low income families. Meaningful communication is a necessary condition for informed choice.
Payment Language uses words and concepts directed toward that objective. It can enlighten those who may have limited their college choice because they did not understand the available information about paying for college. Colleges must use words with universal meaning for financial transactions that explain the choices about what college to attend and how to pay the bill. We should adopt Payment Language, and follow these principles::
Payment Language adopts only words that are used in common financial transactions that are familiar to the public.
Payment Language produces comparable concepts about college pricing in all institutions from any sector of higher education, for all types of financial aid programs, and for all amounts of discounting and payment.
Payment Language uses “net price” – the amount of money that the family pays for one year of college -- calculated as the price of attendance minus grants and scholarships from all sources.
Payment Language separates financial obligation among the institution, student and parents.
Payment Language identifies the federal, state, institutional, and other programs and their associated eligibility requirements as a source of funding.
Payment Language identifies the expected timing for payment into past (savings), present (wages), and future (loan) financial obligations.
Payment Language includes the responsibilities for education loan repayment, including the interest rate, effect of compound interest, the total interest, monthly repayment, the possibilities for reduction and forgiveness as well as the incidence and consequences of default and bankruptcy.
Payment Language is as easily understood in Spanish as English and can be translated directly to other foreign languages.
These principles require testing. Conjecture about how people talk, the words they use, and what they understand is not enough to evaluate the benefits and the costs of a college education. Years of good intentions notwithstanding, our communications with the public about paying for college are confusing and often misunderstood outside of the academy.
C. Anthony Broh is the founder and principal of Broh Consulting Services and co-author of Paying for College. He has been constructing a universal “Language of Financial Aid” with financial aid officers for more than a decade.
Centre College on Tuesday announced a $250 million gift -- believed to be the largest ever to a liberal arts college -- that will support merit scholarships. Starting in the fall of 2014, 40 students a year will receive what the college is calling "full ride plus" scholarships, to cover tuition, room and board, all fees and additional money to support study abroad, research or internships. The funds will be available only to students majoring in the natural sciences, computational sciences and economics.
The U.S. Education Department last week announced significant changes in the array of providers it uses to service federal student loans, and the flurry of changes are likely to reinforce concerns among some student loan borrowers about how they and their loans are treated by the servicers (especially when their loans are split among multiple servicers).
The announcement from the department on Friday expanded on an earlier announcement about the agency's plan to phase out the involvement of ACS (which is owned by Xerox) from its student loan servicing team, and the addition of Nelnet. The statement, aimed at financial aid officers, also notes that the technology platform used by four nonprofit loan servicers is being discontinued, and that loans held by those servicers will be transferred to two other nonprofit service providers.
A ProPublica report last year documented the difficulties that some borrowers had encountered from having their loans randomly assigned to servicers (and in some cases multiple ones), including inconsistent or changing information about how much they owe, payment plans, etc.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said in March that it would extend its oversight to student loan servicers.
An Education Department proposal to expand the scope and reach of its central database for student aid would violate federal law and distort the database's purposes, a group of higher education associations argued in a letter sent to department officials Monday.
The letter, sent by the American Council on Education on behalf of seven other groups, responds to a request for comment published in the Federal Register in late June, in which the Education Department's Federal Student Aid office proposed to make a set of changes to information collected by the National Student Loan Data System.
The associations' letter argues that some of the department's goals are appropriately tied to the database's original purpose, but it questions a plan to modify legal provisions related to gainful employment programs to collect information about students who do not receive federal financial aid, among other things. "[W]e do not understand how the inclusion of information about unaided students in NSLDS can be justified," they wrote.
The groups also challenged the department's plan to expand the student loan database to collect consumer protection and program evaluation data, and the department's authority to make such changes in a Federal Register notice rather than through legislation. The proposals, they write, "exceed the boundaries of the law in ways that the courts have prohibited and that distort the purposes of NSLDS."
The letter also cites numerous ways in which the department's proposal falls short of its obligations under the Federal Privacy Act.