The Value of Simplicity in Estimating Student Aid

Tools that skip most of the questions on aid calculators are gathering support. Have they figured out something that most colleges haven’t?

August 21, 2017

Many colleges are confusing or discouraging low-income students with overly complicated net price calculators, said a report issued last week by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The report praised simple tools that perform some or all of the functions of net price calculators, which federal law requires colleges to provide as a means for prospective students to figure out their aid eligibility.

But the report noted that 30-plus elite colleges block College Abacus, one simple tool, instead insisting that students instead use the colleges' own aid calculators. And one tool that the report did praise was a calculator used at Wellesley College that turns out to have much in common with College Abacus and that is now being used by other colleges as well. The issue raised by the report is, in effect, would simple be best for providing aid information to the students at the lowest income levels?

Many net price calculators aim for precision, and they tell prospective students to gather their parents' tax records, information on family income and assets, and more. For middle-class families (and upper-class families who qualify for aid at plenty of colleges), this may make sense.

But aid experts have long said that for low-income, first-generation students, these kinds of questions can be intimidating -- and scare people off. Further, they say that once you establish that someone is very poor, that may be all the information you really need. And that's the idea behind College Abacus, which is sponsored by ECMC Group, a nonprofit educational corporation. (ECMC Group is the nonprofit owner of Zenith Education Group, which purchased some of the Everest and WyoTech campuses formerly under Corinthian Colleges.)

Abril Hunt, outreach manager for ECMC, said it's all about the questions you ask. With the right questions for low-income students, you don't really need tax records, she said. In five minutes, with just a handful of questions, you can get the necessary information, she said.

For example, a key question is: Are you eligible for reduced or free lunch at school?

For those who answer yes, there is no need for more information to tell them that they will almost certainly qualify for Pell Grants, other forms of federal aid, institutional aid and various government-backed loans, Hunt said. Of course, they will later need to complete formal aid applications, Hunt said. But this stage is about showing students what is possible and encouraging them to take the next steps in applying to college and for financial aid.

"The whole focus here is on the first-generation students who are intimidated by the process," she said.

The other key part of the tool is its ability to allow students to specify all the colleges that intrigue them and to be told of eligibility at all of them (including varying levels of likely aid).

About 50,000 students or counselors have used the tool this year. It is also available in Spanish. The typical time required to answer the questions and get an estimate is five minutes.

Some colleges that have blocked access to Abacus have said that they fear there could be privacy issues or that someone could try to sell student data. But Hunt said that Abacus doesn't save the files. In fact, except for a minority of students who ask to save files so they can return and check on more colleges, most students' data are never saved at all. Students find out they are eligible for aid (typically a lot), are encouraged, and proceed.

She said that Abacus "doesn't have anything to sell," so the idea of selling data is a groundless worry.


Also gaining traction is a similarly simple approach (again, with the idea of a few questions and no tax forms) called MyinTuition.

It is the system from Wellesley praised by the Cooke Foundation. It doesn't take the place of a net calculator or a full aid application. But it does encourage low-income students that they qualify for lots of aid.

The system was created for Wellesley by Phillip B. Levine, the Katharine Coman and A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Economics. He has since created a nonprofit to expand the tool, which is now in use at 15 colleges, including Amherst, Bowdoin, Carleton, Colorado, Dartmouth, Mount Holyoke and Pomona Colleges.

Levine reports tens of thousands of unique sign-ins to the system in the last year. And he too argues that educators should start off with a basic tool and worry about tax returns and precision later.

"I like to think about it like a financial aid funnel," he said via email. "Enter little information, get a quick ballpark answer (note we present a range of estimates). Enter more information, get a more precise answer."


Share Article

Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

Back to Top