Emerging Consensus on Financial Aid Award Letters

As TICAS has long advocated, for students and families to make sound decisions about paying for college, financial aid letters must be clear, comparable, and consumer-friendly. On each of these fronts, there is significant room for improvement. As a step in that direction, the U.S. Department of Education held a public meeting earlier this month to gather input on how to improve financial aid award letters. We submitted written comments and participated in both the panels and small group discussions at the meeting.

What emerged from this month’s meeting was a broad and growing consensus about the need for consistent core elements and common definitions across award letters. There was also continued discussion, but less agreement, about whether or not there should be a single award letter format, and whether standards for award letters should be made mandatory at some point in the future. All of the panelists and all of the small groups of participants reporting out listed most or all of the following as critical core components for all award letters:

  • Realistic estimates of the full cost of attending college for one year, whether paid directly to the college or not; federal law defines cost of attendance as including at least  tuition & fees, room & board, books & supplies, transportation & miscellaneous personal expenses.
  • Grants, scholarships, and other aid that does not have to be earned or repaid, often known as gift aid.
  • Any remaining costs after gift aid is subtracted, commonly referred to as net price.
  • The types and amounts of loans, work-study, and parent/student contributions recommended by the college to cover the remaining costs, often called self-help.
  • Contact information for the financial aid office.

These are consistent with our recommendations  emphasizing the importance of key principles and elements. While there is broad consensus on the elements, there was vigorous discussion about what to call them. Some participants were particularly concerned that terms like “cost of attendance” and “net price,” may not be accessible to students and families. There was general agreement that the next steps need to include several ways of gathering consumer input directly from those who actually receive award letters—students and their families—and those who help them interpret them—counselors and advisors from schools and community groups. In his remarks, David Hawkins of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) noted that students and families expect high school counselors to be able to help them with financial aid questions, including interpreting award letters, but this is an area where the counselors themselves feel they need additional assistance. Among the ideas for how to engage consumers, U.S. PIRG pointed out the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s “Know Before You Owe” page, which brought in over 18,000 comments on how to simplify and improve mortgage disclosures, as an example of an innovative and successful effort of this sort.

We encourage the Department to build on the clear consensus that emerged from this month’s meeting about key elements and the importance of consistent and consumer-friendly terminology. In particular, the Department should engage with consumers both before and after drafting model award letter formats and recommendations, gathering input about how best to help them understand college costs and options for covering them.

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