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Public confidence in college financial aid offices has been shattered by revelations of gifts, trips, deals, and kickbacks from lenders. In the resulting confusion, I have been asked time and again: "Is there a web site you can recommend where students can get accurate, complete and unbiased comparisons of student loan rates?" Unfortunately, the answer is no. The sites we have seen take money from lenders in exchange for getting listed. Often, lenders pay a premium to get prominent placement in the user’s search results. In some cases, "comparison" sites actually lead to only one or two lenders out of the thousands in the market. Even on sites that feature multiple lenders, it is perilously easy to be led down the wrong road, ending up with higher-cost loans that do not carry the interest caps and other protections that come with federal loans. I recently logged into SimpleTuition.com to see what loan offers I could get if I decided to pursue my MBA at U.C. Berkeley. The lowest rate on the list (showing up on page 2) was 7.27% for a private loan from a company called Student Funding Group LLC. The price-conscious and time-constrained consumer, having found the best deal, might click on the "apply now" button and end the comparison shopping. Instead, I opened the expanded version of the search results, which revealed that the 7.27% is the "as low as" rate. It’s not a sure thing until I submit a complete application and allow the lender to peruse my credit reports. Still, I had reason to be optimistic. MyFICO.com said my credit is so good that "Most lenders will consider offering you their most attractive and most competitive rates" and may even offer me "special incentives and rewards targeted to their 'best' customers." I should be a slam-dunk for that as-low-as rate of 7.27%, I thought. I proceeded through the application process (no, it didn’t take only a minute, as advertised) and eventually got a rate quote: 8.75% plus 4% in fees, or the equivalent of between 9 to 10% -- much more than the 7.27% that at first appeared possible. Many (maybe most) consumers, after filling out that whole application, would go ahead and take the loan even at the higher rate, assuming there was some good reason they can’t get the as-low-as rate. But I decided to compare. A second lender, Sun Trust, had showed up on SimpleTuition with an as-low-as rate of 7.28%. After submitting, again, a whole application, I received a rate quote of 7.875%. It was much closer to the as-low-as rate, though there was no indication as to whether there would be any fees charged. I inquired via email, and it appeared that there would be no fees applied in my case. Had I found the best loan for me? No, not even close. It turns out that SimpleTuition neglected to tell me about Federal Stafford loans, with rates of no more than 6.8%. And while the list included Federal Grad-Plus loans, I ignored them because the interest rate of 7.92% was higher than the rates I saw on listed private loans. Or so I thought. The important detail that I missed—because it’s not clear on the web site—was that the Grad-Plus loan rates are fixed, not variable like the private loans. That's a critical and potentially expensive distinction. Not all lenders try to push private loans ahead of Federal loans. For example, Wachovia strongly encourages students to get Federal loans before considering private loans. Contrast that with the treatment you get when seeking a student loan through LendingTree.com. The site directs you immediately to a private loan company. And if you express an interest in Federal loans instead of their more expensive private loan, you are told with an ominous lack of enthusiasm: "Federal Loans may be a good option for some families." In fact, Federal loans are the best place to start for nearly everyone. But wait! The lender list at GreentreeGazette.com shows that National City has private loans with zero interest. I applied. The promissory note arrived and I prepared to provide my electronic signature and get my loan. But I noticed that it said that my interest rate "margin" would be 4.25. I perused the rest of the document and found that the interest rate would be LIBOR plus the margin, which totals almost 10%. Plus 4% in fees. Another bad lead. The system is confusing enough without the added problem of colleges' advice being potentially tainted by conflicts of interest. Students in the lending maze need unbiased, knowledgeable advisors. That's the important role that college financial aid administrators should be playing in the process.

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On April 1, the U.S. Department of Education released the FAFSA4caster, an online tool intended to help families plan for college by providing early estimates of their federal financial aid eligibility. To get an early aid estimate, students and their parents have to answer 96 questions from the actual FAFSA. Positives: For students and parents who are not put off by the volume and complexity of questions in the FAFSA4caster, it will be a useful tool. It can give them a good sense of what they will be expected to pay towards college costs and what federal aid they may be eligible for. In addition, the data they enter will be used to pre-populate many elements of the full FAFSA when they are ready to officially apply for aid. This is a good use of technology that will allow aid applicants to pick up where they left off, rather than starting from scratch. Negatives: The FAFSA4caster requires students and parents to answer all of the most difficult and error-prone income questions that make the actual FAFSA so intimidating. You still have to track down all the tax documents, make various calculations, and transfer the answers from one form to another by hand. Suggestion: The way to make this tool easy and inviting is to significantly reduce the number of high-stakes questions that applicants have to answer themselves. That can be accomplished -- without diminishing the accuracy of the aid estimate -- by letting users authorize the IRS to answer 31 of the questions automatically. We encourage the Department to take this opportunity to simplify the FAFSA4Caster as soon as possible. Because the estimate it produces is non-binding, the Department could use whatever year of income data is available from the IRS at the time students and parents use the new tool. For more about how this approach could make the whole aid application process easier, see Going to the Source: A Practical Way to Simplify the FAFSA. FYI: To get a sense of how hard it is to create a simple aid estimation tool given the income data that applicants are currently required to provide themselves, see these valiant attempts by FinAid! and the College Board.

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The most inefficient and intimidating part of the financial aid process is requiring students and families to transcribe, calculate, and submit piles of income information that the government already has. An article in today's Inside Higher Ed describes how researchers are conducting an experiment with H&R Block that pre-fills the FAFSA with selected clients' tax data. Over the past year, The Institute for College Access & Success has been exploring a way that all students and families could benefit from a similar approach. We've found that it's both technologically feasible and perfectly legal for financial aid applicants to give the U.S. Department of Education access to the needed income information in their tax records. People already do this whenever they apply for a mortgage and in many other situations. For more about this approach, see our testimony before the Advisory Committee for Student Financial Assistance.

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The entire Economic Diversity of Colleges web site has been updated with the best available information for the 2004-05 school year. Institutional profiles reflect the new information with fresh charts and graphs, and the new data has been added to the comparison tool as well as the institutional data pages. We welcome your questions, comments, and suggestions about this update and other aspects of EconomicDiversity.org.

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The Economic Diversity web site now includes the average student loan debt for the 2005 graduating class as reported by 1,421 four-year institutions. Also included is the proportion of graduates with any student loans. The site provides access to these data (as well as comparable figures for 2000 and 2004) through an agreement with college guide publisher Thomson Peterson's. (The data are copyright 2006 Thomson Peterson's, a part of Thomson Learning Inc. All rights reserved.) Using the new 2005 data, we constructed statewide enrollment-weighted averages for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The state averages will be posted tomorrow on our sister site, the Project on Student Debt, along with a brief report. The five states with the highest average cumulative student debt are New Hampshire, Iowa, North Dakota, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. The five lowest are Utah, Hawaii, Delaware, Maryland, and California. These data aren't perfect. Colleges are asked to report the total federal and private student loans taken out by graduating seniors while they attended that institution. This means that prior borrowing by students who transfer is not included. Actual debt may also be higher due to private loans taken out by the students but not handled by the campus financial aid office (and therefore not in the campus' records).

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Companies offering private student loans advertise low rates, but the rates they actually charge to individual borrowers, and how they determine those rates, are closely-held trade secrets. The rates are based on borrower credit scores and other factors; ultimately, companies maximize their returns by trying to charge the highest rate they can while still getting the business. One way to determine the actual rates being charged on private student loans is to review the prospectuses that accompany portfolios of loans that are sold to investors. We looked at four recent portfolios from Sallie Mae, and one Fitch Ratings review of a portfolio from the National Collegiate Student Loan Trust. These portfolios revealed average interest rates today of 9.77%, 9.91%, 10.0%, 10.11% and 10.35% (based on a today's Prime rate of 8.25% and a 3-month LIBOR rate of 5.47%). Many borrowers, at least 15% of them according to the investor reports, are charged interest rates of more than 12%. These rates are variable, so as interest rates in the economy increase, so do the rates paid by the borrowers.

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One well-documented obstacle to economic diversity is the financial aid application process itself: the FAFSA is incredibly long, confusing and intimidating. When low-income students don't apply for financial aid, they miss out on resources that could increase their chances of success in college by allowing them to go to school full time, work reasonable hours, and attend more supportive institutions. In a paper published this April, Harvard economists Susan Dynarski and Judith Scott-Clayton examine how the FAFSA can be a barrier to access and aid. Among their findings: "the basic step of locating financial records is an obstacle for poor students, due to higher mobility rates and family dysfunctions such as divorce and separation of children from parents." A recent ACE report found that nearly two million Pell-eligible students did not apply for financial aid in 2003-04. For the lowest income students, financial aid application rates are flat (for dependents) or declining (for independents), even as overall aid application rates rise. Calls for FAFSA simplification usually focus on changing the formula that determines aid eligibility, so that it requires less data from students and parents. These proposals rarely make headway because they require difficult and politicized choices about eligibility, equity and cost. The good news is that there's a very practical way to make the FAFSA easier for students and families to use, regardless of the underlying formula. That's because the government already has some of the most important information used to calculate eligibility. Instead of having to dig through piles of tax records and do complex calculations, applicants could simply provide access to their IRS transcripts. The data could be processed electronically, eliminating many of the most difficult FAFSA questions and worksheets. People routinely give this permission when they apply for loans, and many commercial entities use this tool to verify income information. There's even a line on the IRS transcript request form that says: "If the transcript or tax information is to be mailed to a third party (such as a mortgage company), enter the third party's name, address, and telephone number." The private contractors running the Federal Direct Loan Program already use a consent form to access Income Contingent Repayment Plan users' IRS data. And some local governments have incorporated the IRS form into applications for benefits for working poor families. So, why not build it into the FAFSA itself, and lower a barrier to access?

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In the Chronicle of Higher Education's excellent series on low-income and working class students in college, the editors included rankings of elite colleges' enrollments of Pell grant recipients. The Pell grant data that is available from the U.S. Department of Education is for an entire academic year -- in other words, all the students who received a grant during any term, including the summer. Yet the denominator chosen by the Chronicle -- the enrollment for determining the percentage of Pell recipients -- is Fall only. Generally, at highly selective colleges, most students start in the fall and stay, so there's not a big difference between Fall enrollment and 12-month unduplicated total enrollment. But some campuses have more students who start in other terms. Those potential Pell recipients are included in the numerator (Education Department's Pell numbers), but not in the Chronicle's Fall denominator, causing the percentage to be higher than it should be. Given the fine gradation of the Chronicle's rankings (as small as 1/10 of one percent), this makes a difference in the rankings. In our database, for example, Baylor University jumps up almost two full percentage points when Fall enrollment is used as the denominator instead of the more appropriate 12-month number. There's another wrinkle in these types of rankings. Most students attending elite colleges are dependent students, and therefore their parents' income is included in determining whether they come from a less advantaged background. Once a student turns 24, however, they become independent, and may suddenly qualify for a Pell grant because they have very little income of their own. More independent students qualify for Pell than dependent students. That's why our database includes an estimate of the proportion of dependent students at income levels below $30,000 and between $30,000 and $60,000. Again, looking at the campuses ranked by the Chronicle, some of the results would be different if they asked which campuses enroll more traditional-age undergraduates with incomes below $60,000. The flagship public institutions in Nebraska, Texas and Illinois all do significantly better under this alternative measure. Among private institutions, Stanford, the University of Chicago, Carleton and Pomona all move up significantly when using the estimates focused on dependent students only. Thanks to University of Virginia economist Sarah Turner for pointing to these issues in her letter-to-the-editor in the Chronicle.

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The economicdiversity.org database includes campus-by-campus data on the total student loan debt of graduating seniors. The numbers come from the Common Data Set, and are reported by the campuses to the various publishers of college guides. The instructions to campuses tell them to include private loans in the total. But at a recent meeting between campus data-keepers and the publishers, it became clear that some campuses have a better handle than others on the amount of private loans being made to their students. To be clearer about the totals in future data collections, the Common Data Set will, in the future, ask campuses to provide separate totals for federal and private loans; some campuses will input a "not available" in the private loan field. One solution to this data problem would be for the feds to require that private loans be certified by the college in order to qualify for the tax deduction on student loan interest. That way, financial aid administrators would be able to track who has private loans, and how much students have truly borrowed. They would also be able to check to make sure that the student isn't making a mistake by signing up for a high-rate or otherwise undesirable loan. This might also help borrowers down the line, since many don't know the differences between federal and private loans, and are unclear as to which they have. If aid administrators had more information, they could more easily advise students about the risks and tradeoffs of alternative loans.

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Three disturbing stories about the rise of private student loans: When a borrower defaults on a federal loan, it affects the school's overall default rate, which the federal government uses as an indicator of school quality. Willis Hulings, CEO of TERI, a nonprofit guarantor of private loans, told an industry conference recently that some schools are turning to private loans in order to dodge the federal default triggers. The way I heard it from another source, some schools with borderline high default rates in the federal loan program steer particular students -- those they fear will default -- to private loans so that a default won't show up in the federal numbers. If, in fact, the student is a default risk, then it is likely that the lender is charging a very high interest rate (unless the borrower has a creditworthy cosigner). I would bet this second situation is more common: private loans being used for students who don't qualify for federal loans because they are not making "satisfactory academic progress." A student task force at the University of Nevada, Reno, reported that as true there. Schools decide what is "satisfactory," and in UNR's case it's a 2.0 GPA. So, essentially, students who are at a high risk of flunking out and not ultimately earning the salaries that will allow them to pay off student loans are getting high-rate private loans. Yikes. I hope their parents are the cosigners. A third story from a reliable source. Private colleges encourage low-income students to enroll. Instead of putting together a full financial aid package, college officials suggest they go ahead and attend, paying tuition on an installment plan, which is commonly offered at many colleges. The students complete the coursework, but cannot pay the tuition, and ultimately determine that they cannot afford to continue at the college. So they decide to transfer to a lower-tution option. But they can't transfer, because the college won't release the transcripts until they've paid the tuition. They're stuck. To some degree, these types of problems can be reduced through vigilant oversight by regulators and the media. One good example is the private loan scandal at Lehigh Valley College in Pennsylvania last year.

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