How can you tell the difference between a grant and a loan? While this shouldn’t be a trick question, for many students it is. When students apply for financial aid, they receive a financial aid “award” letter detailing their financial aid package. These letters can (and often do) blur the lines between grants, work-study, need-based and non-need based federal loans to yield a seemingly generous “award package.” Since each institution develops its own letter, it is difficult for students to compare packages across institutions. Today, the Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released a tool they hope will help provide students with clear and comparable information—a financial aid “shopping sheet.”
The CFPB released a draft of the shopping sheet last October. Since then, it has collected and incorporated more than 1,000 comments from various stakeholders, including students, parents, financial aid administrators, and college access professionals. The end result is a simplified model financial aid award letter that clearly lists cost of attendance, and separates grants from federal loans and work-study. It provides a link to loan calculators to learn more about repayment options and also offers a small amount of space for an institution to add customized information. Ideally, this shopping sheet could become a cover sheet for all financial aid packages.
While the final version is much improved from the draft, there is one glaring, fatal problem that has nothing to do with its design or component parts—institutional adoption of the shopping sheet is voluntary. I doubt that even a majority of the more than 6,600 Title IV institutions will decide to use the shopping sheet. I can hear (and have already heard) some of the arguments for why institutions won’t opt-in: “my institution is not ‘one-size-fits-all’” and “conforming to the letter is overly burdensome.” I don’t imagine I’ll hear institutions say that they benefit from student confusion, and yet some do. In either event, these arguments often lose sight of what students, not institutions, need in order to make informed choices about where to go to college.
In anticipation of the inevitable burden complaints, the Department has made it easier for institutions to adopt the letter, by working with existing financial aid delivery software to incorporate the shopping sheet as a template. But what incentive will institutions have to actually use it? None.
Right now the impact of the “shopping sheet” largely depends on who decides to use it. If some big-name institutions (Harvard et al) start using the “shopping sheet,” competing peer institutions (and those striving to emulate) may feel they need to use it as well. And let’s not forget the group of ten college presidents who met with Vice President Joe Biden and pledged to be transparent about costs—they should walk the walk and agree to adopt the shopping sheet. These presidents represented a broad range of institutions—like Miami Dade College and the entire State University of New York System—that could reach a diverse group of students.
These institutions, however, will only be a drop in a large bucket of more than 6,600 institutions. Interestingly enough, the shopping sheet will have the biggest impact on prospective military and veteran students. That’s because for them, the shopping sheet will be required. According to President Obama’s recent Executive Order, institutions receiving funding from Federal military and veterans educational benefits programs must provide the shopping sheet to military students.
Senator Franken understands the importance of a model financial aid letter for students, which is why he has introduced bipartisan legislation that would mandate its use. He wants to ensure that all students, not just those lucky enough to apply to schools that voluntarily adopt this letter or those using military benefits, understand the true cost of college. A scattershot approach will not help a student and her family line up and compare four different award letters on the dining room table.