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The education policy folks at New America have done some important work through a comprehensive review of over 11,000 financial aid award letters.

The result, a report titled, “Decoding the Cost of College: The Case for Transparent Financial Aid Award Letters” found a disturbing lack of consistency and transparency among the information institutions supply to prospective students on financial aid and college costs. 

New America argues this makes it difficult for students and their families to “make a financially-informed college decision.”

No doubt. In many cases it seems as though students may be making a choice while being fundamentally confused about the gap between financial aid being offered and actual college costs. Seventy-percent of the letters studied (in a smaller, qualitative review), failing to distinguish between grants, scholarships, loans, and work study.

While the report doesn’t directly say so, director of New America Education, Kevin Carey remarked on Twitter that the letters are sufficiently problematic as to “appear to be deliberately deceptive.” 

I agree. In response, New America calls for changes to policy, regulating and mandating a uniform reporting of the information, based in consumer testing. They also believe “Colleges and universities should develop more student-centered financial aid offers and tools, as well as align their efforts with other key departments serving student financial needs.”

I support this. I just wish it wasn’t necessary.

Of course, it isn’t necessary, or wouldn’t be necessary if the cost of college were something closer to what it was when I matriculated to the University of Illinois in 1988 and a year’s tuition cost just over one month’s worth of minimum wage work.

A year’s tuition to the University of Illinois now costs almost 49 weeks of minimum wage work in Illinois. The New America study found that there’s a nearly $12,000 annual gap between aid and cost, even for students who receive Pell Grants. That’s more than my four years of college tuition cost in total. It’s the equivalent of 9 months of minimum wage work in the state of Illinois.

While I’m certain we should do all the things New America recommends, perhaps we can also take some time consider exactly why higher education institutions are engaging in possibly “deliberately deceptive practices” when informing prospective students about costs and financial aid.

It’s about competition. When institutions must compete for students they must put the best possible (looking) package in front of students and these are the results.

The costs of competition in education is become something of a recurring theme in this blog space and for good reason. Asking students and institutions compete is, I believe, is a significant driver of inefficiency and increasing costs.

In general, New America has taken a pro-market stance when it comes to improving access to education. Kevin Carey’s book, The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere includes explicit calls to open up accreditation to make room for alternative providers, under the theory this competition will ultimately benefit students.

I think there’s little evidence to support this. I think we’re looking at something much closer to Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of the For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy if we continue to require colleges and universities to compete with each other.

In an example I’ve gone to before, the University of South Carolina, a well-regarded state institution which would have no trouble filling its student body almost entirely with SC residents, employs 20 recruiters to try to lure out-of-state students so they can reap the rewards of those increased tuition dollars. 

Consider what would happen if those 20 positions were instead redistributed towards student retention or explicit programs for first-generation students. Which category of job seems more aligned with the values of higher education?

But no, we must compete, and part of the competition apparently involves trying to deceive students as to how much their education is going to cost.

It’s perverse.

Of course, this is not the only example of a refusal to tackle the root problem because the root problem seems so difficult. Did you see the news about 8th graders at a Pennsylvania school receiving “bulletproof Safe Shield inserts” for their backpacks as a graduation gift? 

These things cost something like $150 a piece, down to $99 with a bulk discount. It would cost $5 billion to provide one to every schoolchild in the U.S. This is not a policy which stops school shootings, of course. It merely improves the odds of students surviving a school shooting.[1]

I don’t imagine the New America policy recommendations (which, once again, we should absolutely do) will be particularly costly in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps the low millions for research and development, then some ongoing costs for monitoring and compliance.

Still, none of this work does a thing to close that $12,000 gap.

I can’t help but believe that on some level, every dime of it is a waste when we know the right thing to do.


[1] Or how about this “lockdown” nursery rhyme for Kindergartners in a Somerville, MA school? What’s the psychological damage of this kind of stuff? 

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