• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Lessons From a Cereal Box

A standard format for financial aid award letters shouldn’t be that hard.

February 9, 2022

You know how boxes of breakfast cereal have a standardized nutrition report on the side? It’s a great idea, even if most people don’t use it. For those who care, it’s easy to compare the calories and nutrients of one brand of cereal against another. Yes, the suggested serving sizes are sometimes … amusing … but the basic idea makes sense. By putting the same information in the same format across brands, consumers have a fighting chance to make intelligent comparisons.

Apparently, the same is not true of financial aid award letters. It should be.

The Girl has received a few letters so far, all of them confusing. Like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each is confusing in its own way.

One favorite trick is to highlight the scholarship/discount but leave out the top-line figure. A $10,000 scholarship sounds amazing, but if the top-line figure is $80,000, it might as well be Monopoly money. Without knowing what the discount is subtracted from, it’s hard to know how relevant it is.

Some schools package loans as part of aid, and some don’t.

Some, apparently, fold “merit” scholarships into the larger “need” scholarship, so you’re no better off than you would have been without the merit. That just feels like cheating. (I know it played out that way because the “merit” award came chronologically before the aid letter. They simply discounted the aid by the amount of the “merit.” Uh, thanks …?)

Some break it out by the year, some by the semester.

Honestly, this shouldn’t be that hard. When TB went through this a few years ago, I had him put together a simple spreadsheet to track and compare offers. Start with total cost for a year. Then subtract any discounts, whether aid-based, merit-based or both. The remaining figure is what actually has to be paid. Yes, interest-free loans are better than interest-bearing ones, but they’re still loans. Ignore the work-study piece altogether, since that isn’t actually “given.”

A simple, standardized form across the sector would make comparisons so much easier. And it would be easy enough to enact.

If Tony the Tiger can do it, research universities should be able to figure it out.

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Matt Reed

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