Let’s get one thing straight: Financial aid award letters can and should be improved to better help students understand the costs of higher education and the aid available to them.
Although Rachel Fishman’s Views article in Monday's Inside Higher Ed would have readers believe otherwise, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) and the 18,000 financial aid professionals we represent are committed to ensuring that students and families have the information they need to make good decisions about planning and paying for college.
Fishman’s opinion article not only oversimplifies and misrepresents NASFAA’s position, it wastes precious time drawing battle lines over a fight that doesn’t exist, instead of moving the policy discussion forward.
Here’s the reality:
All key stakeholders agree that improvement is needed in consumer disclosures about the cost of college. That’s why NASFAA convened a Consumer Information and Award Letter Task Force on this subject almost a year ago. In May, that task force released recommendations on how to improve award letters and consumer notification -- recommendations that align with the Department of Education’s recently released Shopping Sheet in several key areas.
NASFAA has never opposed or discouraged use of the Shopping Sheet. Rather, we have urged schools to carefully examine the Shopping Sheet to ensure it will effectively communicate important information. We’ve also encouraged members to – at a minimum – adopt the recommendations NASFAA issued in the spring. In a recent letter to members, I wrote, “Regardless of whether your institution adopts the Shopping Sheet, I urge you to strongly consider standardizing specific elements of the Shopping Sheet that are in correlation with NASFAA’s recommendations, as set forth by the Task Force and adopted by the NASFAA Board of Directors.”
NASFAA has been at the forefront of discussions about how to lead improvement of consumer disclosures. Rather than putting “entrenched institutional interests above students’ financial welfare” (as Fishman asserts) we’ve actually partnered with the Department of Education throughout this process, urging our members to offer feedback on preliminary versions of the Shopping Sheet as well as the final version. We were pleased to partner with key members of the Department of Education and White House to see aspects of our recommendations adopted in the final version.
Ignoring the existence of NASFAA’s detailed recommendations show at best a lack of research (or even cursory glance) on Fishman’s part, and at worst an intentional omission of facts in order to bolster her misguided assertions that do little to move this policy discussion forward.
The truth is that our recommendations align in many places with the goals of the Shopping Sheet. For instance, we concur with mandating the standardization of common terminology to avoid confusion and enhance comparability. We also recommend that self-help aid and student loans be clearly delineated from grants and scholarships. In fact, NASFAA’s recommendations go further than the shopping sheet, advocating for a one-stop online location where students can be shown all of their student loan indebtedness, both federal and private.
However, we do remain cautious about fully endorsing the Shopping Sheet because it hasn’t been consumer-tested against other models, including online and electronic models currently utilized successfully by leading institutions of higher education. Schools are already required to provide an overwhelming number of disclosures to students and parents. Without consumer testing, no one can assert that the Shopping Sheet is the best way to convey financial aid award information to all types of students. To ensure the Shopping Sheet is based on rigorous research rather than anecdote, NASFAA is planning a consumer test, to be conducted through an independent third-party evaluator.
In the absence of such empirical data, NASFAA encourages financial aid offices to “to carefully review the Shopping Sheet before adopting it to ensure it will effectively communicate this critical information to the students and families they serve.”
This statement of caution should not be misrepresented as opposition. NASFAA does not oppose the Shopping Sheet, but we do wish to circumvent unintended negative consequences, avoid additional confusion, and preserve the ability of schools to deliver information in ways that they have found best serve their particular populations.
Fishman states that “the Shopping Sheet may need to be altered in some circumstances.” We agree. Unfortunately, once a school agrees to use the Shopping Sheet in its current form, it cannot be altered to meet the unique needs of diverse higher education institutions -- and this inflexibility is one of NASFAA’s primary concerns.
For instance, some campuses send a different award letter to returning students than to incoming students. While the Shopping Sheet is designed to inform first-time or prospective students, the vast majority of college students are returning students.
Appropriate consumer disclosures that actually help students and families cannot be developed in a vacuum. Financial aid administrators are a key part of the ongoing dialogue. We agree that change is needed and some level of standardization is warranted, but this process must be deliberative and based on quantifiable data about what works for students and families. Anything less is a disservice to those we are trying to help.
Justin Draeger is president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
Imagine you’ve just been accepted to the college of your dreams. At first you feel elation, but then anxiety sets in — will you and your family be able to afford it? Since financial aid packages often blur the line between grants and loans, it might be hard to tell. A $40,000 "award" at one school might seem like a much better deal than a $20,000 package at another — unless you realize the larger "award" consists mostly of loans. With borrowing and loan default rates on the rise, aid packages have huge consequences for students’ educational and financial lives.
In response, the U.S. Department of Education recently unveiled a "Shopping Sheet" that standardizes the way financial aid packages are presented to students. This allows students and parents to easily compare the true cost of one college to another. But institutions don’t have to use the Shopping Sheet, and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), a powerful industry trade group, is trying to make sure they never do.
NASFAA should be an influential advocate for the Shopping Sheet. Part of its mission is to support policies that increase student access and success. But when the Shopping Sheet was recently unveiled by the Department of Education, NASFAA’s president, Justin Draeger, issued the following statement:
"We remain concerned with the inflexible standardization of the Shopping Sheet, and more broadly, with the multitude of consumer disclosure initiatives that have been introduced in recent months. Institutions need flexibility to design a financial aid award letter that best meets the needs of their unique student populations."
The Shopping Sheet might need to be altered in some circumstances, whether it be something as simple as how to classify the federal TEACH grant, or something much more complicated like how to accurately reflect cost of attendance and net price for part-time students. Financial aid administrators, however, are unlikely to experiment with it and provide invaluable feedback since their own professional organization signals that they shouldn’t. And a system in which every institution creates its own award letter ends up serving no students well.
As an example, here’s a real financial aid award letter, followed by a version of the Shopping Sheet containing the same information. I’ve indicated in red some key differences between the two versions to show how the Shopping Sheet would help students and families make better decisions (click on either image to zoom in):
The first letter combines work-study and loans into the “total award” the student will receive for the academic year, with no reference to the student’s cost of attendance. It goes on to say that “You have been awarded” several federal loans. “Award” is a generous term here since almost the entire cost of attendance will be financed by student loan debt. This amount will only grow larger as interest accrues over time. Even more worrisome, the package includes over $30,000 in a Parent PLUS loan. Of federal loan options, PLUS loans have the highest interest rate, and are not a guarantee — parents have to apply for one.
The Shopping Sheet, by contrast, makes this harsh reality perfectly clear by using the institution’s estimated full cost of attendance and displaying the student’s net price, after accounting for grant and scholarship aid. Federal loans are kept separate from grants and scholarships. Parent PLUS and private loans are only mentioned as a financing option that may be available depending on the student’s situation. The sheet also standardizes common terminology so that loans and grants aren’t cloaked in financial aid jargon — such as labeling a Perkins Loan as “Perkins” or “Perkins L.”
The Shopping Sheet makes this university’s award package look a lot less rosy. And that’s probably one of the main reasons why many institutions and NASFAA are so against it. With skyrocketing costs and persistent state disinvestment, revenue-hungry institutions will try anything to get accepted students in the door. This includes adding more loans to the bottom-line of the aid package, and adding PLUS loans where alternative private loans used to be. Packaging of financial aid is becoming increasingly strategic, and is often done with the institution’s goals, not a student’s need, in mind.
If NASFAA continues to put entrenched institutional interests above students’ financial welfare, it’s unlikely that the Shopping Sheet will be voluntarily adopted at a large scale. The best bet for getting clear, comparable, useful information into students’ hands is federal legislation. Senator Al Franken has introduced a bill with bipartisan support that would require the use of a model aid letter, similar to the Shopping Sheet. “Students today have enough obstacles keeping them from a quality education, deciphering the paperwork shouldn’t be one of them,” remarked Senator Ben Cardin, one of the bill's co-sponsors, “We need to make it easier to understand the options for financial aid and exactly what the full cost will be.”
That’s true, but legislation takes time. Students and their families need help understanding college costs now. If NASFAA is serious about institutional flexibility that actually helps students, then they should encourage institutions to adopt and experiment with the Shopping Sheet now. Otherwise, their flexibility will be legislated away.
Rachel Fishman is a policy analyst for the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. Before joining New America, she worked as a policy analyst at Education Sector.
This month, Vice President Joe Biden led a round-table discussion with a group of college and university presidents from some of our nation’s largest institutions of higher education. The outcome of that meeting was an agreement by the leaders of 10 institutions or higher education systems to include a standardized “shopping sheet” in the financial aid packets sent to incoming students, beginning in the fall of 2013. A sample of the “shopping sheet,” which is designed to provide information relating to college costs, student indebtedness, and likelihood of degree completion, can be found here.
Though I recognize the alarming increase in college costs that has occurred during the last 15 years, and I applaud any honest effort to address this problem, I fear the “shopping sheet” fails to break new ground.
Transparency is a good thing, and students/parents should know what to expect when they select a college. The problems with the “shopping sheet,” however, are threefold.
First, this seems to be an attempt to repackage something that many colleges and universities are already doing. The College Portrait’s Voluntary System of Accountability (VSA) provides a more detailed and nuanced collection of pertinent information for those considering their college options. It includes costs related to tuition and fees, a personalized estimation of financial aid and loans, as well as details and data concerning admissions, campus life, student experiences/outcomes, and much more. The VSA is easy to navigate and also allows for comparison of institutions. Hundreds of colleges and universities are already participating in the VSA, and expansion of that number would be a positive step. Given the existence of the VSA, introduction of the “shopping sheet” seems a bit redundant and doesn’t offer any solution to the cost issue.
Second, the “shopping sheet” fails to address one of the hidden issues in the college-cost discussion -- time to degree. As I have discussed in the past, graduating on time dramatically reduces the total cost of college and increases one’s lifetime earning potential. Though the “shopping sheet” provides a snapshot of institutional and average 4-year graduation rates as well as student retention rates, this information is not sufficient for understanding the total cost/value proposition of attending a college. The College of New Jersey, where I serve as president, is one of only six public colleges and universities nationally that maintain 4-year graduation rates greater than 70 percent.
The reality is that most college students now take longer than 4 years to complete their degrees, or do not graduate at all. That makes 6-year graduation rates, which are included in the VSA but omitted from the “shopping sheet,” an important statistic for consideration. Other vital outcomes, such as post-graduate employment information, graduate school admission rates, and professional license or certification exam passage rates, are published on TCNJ’s admissions web site and in other locations. These data points can be very informative during the college-selection process but are currently overlooked by both the “shopping sheet” and the VSA. Inclusion of that information would be a strong enhancement.
Third, doing this sort of reporting through the “shopping sheet” or VSA or some other government-imposed mechanism, whether state or federal, forces colleges and universities to expend resources. The information provided in these reports can be very useful, but it does not get aggregated or analyzed unless you hire staff to do that work. That’s appropriate, if the expenditures improve educational quality or help increase effectiveness. Unfortunately, though collecting data and issuing reports may illustrate the cost problem, those actions will not solve the problem.
In order to actually address the college-cost issue, institutions must operate strategically and efficiently. They must manage course offerings in ways that optimize the deployment faculty and staff, facilitate the attainment of learning outcomes, and provide students with access to the courses they need for timely degree completion. Institutions also must offer support services that undergird the academic experience, eliminate roadblocks, and enhance the prospects of students graduating on time. Therefore, neither institutions nor their students can afford unnecessary redundancy in the name of political one-upmanship.
I think we can all agree that colleges and universities should be open and honest with prospective students about the actual cost of attaining a degree, not just enrolling for a year. Providing information that allows for simple, accurate comparison of institutions is a worthwhile goal, but I believe adding a few data points to the VSA would be a better strategy than implementing the “shopping sheet.” It’s important to remember, though, that talking about and reporting on our affordability problem is not enough; we need to find ways to solve it.
R. Barbara Gitenstein is president of the College of New Jersey.