This post originally appeared in Forbes.

In Washington, gridlock is a running theme. So it’s not surprising that, even before all the winners of the election were named, experienced observers put the odds of higher education legislation at close to zero. After all, Congress has only passed one comprehensive higher education bill in the last 20 years, and the Capitol is now under divided control.

This time, though, the skeptics might be wrong. The 119th Congress may be the first to rewrite the Higher Education Act since 2008.

Key congressional leaders are saying the right things. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), who is expected to lead the House education committee, will make higher education a priority. So will Senate chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN), who is entering his last term leading the Senate education committee. Patty Murray (D-WA), the Democratic point person in the Senate, is a seasoned legislator with a track record of success. Together with Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-VA), this is the same Big Four that defied expectations and shepherded the Every Student Succeeds Act into law in 2015.

Alexander has been exploring higher education for three years already, and over the last 12 months, Foxx worked hard to advance her flawed PROSPER Act. Their failure may seem discouraging, but the reality is that most legislation fails, often several times, before it succeeds. Past efforts serve as roadmaps, helping future legislators avoid pitfalls and find common ground.

Another counter-intuitive factor: divided control can actually make legislation easier. In the 38 years since the Democrat-led reauthorization in 1980, the HEA has never been reauthorized unless the parties shared control over the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House.

That’s not just an interesting bit of historical trivia: in the Senate, the minority party must cooperate to avoid a filibuster. If that party does not control either the House or the White House, these senators may block any movement out of fear that they will be denied a seat at the table later in the process.

And there is common ground. Already, Alexander and Murray have unveiled a joint proposal to use tax data to simplify the processes for applying for student aid and repaying student loans as a share of income. Both parties agree on the need to reduce the number of different kinds of student loans and repayment plans. With Scott in the driver’s seat in the House, the prospects for bipartisan efforts to collect better postsecondary data -- such as the College Transparency Act -- have also improved.

There are, of course, also pitfalls. One is traditional: spending. The Trump Administration and House Republicans have proposed large cuts to student aid to reduce the deficit. Democrats are seeking substantially more resources for free college and Pell Grants. The number of senators running for president could make these cross-currents even trickier to navigate.

On college accountability, policymakers from both parties say they want to better protect students and taxpayers from unaffordable debts. But Democrats and Republicans have clashed fiercely on rules like borrower defense and gainful employment, which protect students from predatory colleges and low-value career programs. The Trump Administration is systematically dismantling these protections through deregulation and willful neglect.

Campus sexual assault -- another area of Administration action -- will be another challenging issue for negotiators.

And let's be clear: no bill is better than a bad bill. Lawmakers must be ready to walk away from any deal that fails to hold colleges accountable for unaffordable debts, deception and fraud. Any law must also invest in making college more affordable for students who need help the most.

But a higher education law does not need to resolve these issues once and for all with a grand, enduring compromise. It only needs to find a way through the thicket that all parties agree is better than where we are now.

Ultimately, even if legislation fails, it will become a starting point for a future, successful law. Over the course of the next two years, trial balloons will be floated; coalitions formed and legislative text drafted and voted upon. The results of these debates will shape future laws.

It’s a lot of work to get an act of Congress, but the right lawmakers seem committed to giving it a try. After decades of rising college costs and growing inequality, that’s a good thing.


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Over the past 13 years of work on college affordability, TICAS has earned a strong reputation for policymaking expertise, an evidence-based approach, and commitment to putting students first. TICAS is known for climbing into the trenches alongside policymakers to impact public policy, and as a result of its work student loans are more affordable, scholarships are larger, and the financial aid process is simpler.

With student debt at $1.5 trillion and rising, TICAS’ mission has never been more important. Today, we are excited to announce new additions to our team that will help us carry forward this legacy and make college the reliable path to the middle class it has the potential to be.

Beth Stein is TICAS’ new vice president responsible for managing our federal policy team. Most recently, Beth was general counsel and chief oversight counsel for Assistant Democratic Leader Senator Patty Murray’s staff at the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. A twenty-year Hill veteran, Beth led Senator Tom Harkin’s two-year investigation into abuses in the for-profit college sector, as well as investigations into medical devices and campaign finance violations, and helped pass major legislation including the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act and the Affordable Care Act.

Patricia Balana joins us as chief operating officer and chief financial officer, where she will help chart TICAS’ strategy and manage all aspects of finance, information technology, and human resource functions. Patricia previously worked at Jobs for the Future, where she was COO and also directed JFF’s multi-state-level policy and advocacy network. Previously, Patricia spent four years at the American Institutes for Research, where she led the Regional Education Laboratory work on educator effectiveness across the mid- and southwestern states. She was the Chief Operating Officer at the Belfast Schools Authority in Northern Ireland for almost a decade.

The TICAS board of directors is thrilled to announce three new members: Frank Chong, Zakiya Smith Ellis and Kate Tromble. Frank Chong is the president of Santa Rosa Junior College in California. Zakiya Smith Ellis is the secretary of higher education for the State of New Jersey. Kate Tromble is the pastoral associate for social justice at the Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington DC. Frank, Zakiya, and Kate will bring important expertise, experience, and diversity to our board.

Last, but certainly not least, several TICAS staffers have earned promotions in recent weeks. After nearly 12 years of extensive contributions to all aspects of TICAS’ work, Debbie Cochrane has been named executive vice president. Three other TICAS staffers who have long been central to organizational success have also earned promotions this year: Jessica Thompson is now director of policy and planning, Diane Cheng is our research director, and Shannon Serrato is TICAS’ communications director.

Please join TICAS board chair, Richard Kazis, and me in congratulating these individuals on their new roles.

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This post originally appeared on the National College Access Network (NCAN) blog.

By Diane Cheng, Research Director at The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), and Erica Rose, Senior Director of Programs, Massachusetts, at uAspire

Affordability is a key issue for many students and families when choosing which colleges to apply to and attend, but the financial aid process can seem overwhelming. At the recent NCAN conference in Pittsburgh, TICAS and uAspire shared specific ways that counselors can help students and families approach the issue of college affordability and understand their financial aid options.

Here are a few of the tips and tools we shared:

  1. The Financial Aid Toolkit from the U.S. Department of Education is an online "one-stop shop" for counselors, with information about financial aid and a searchable database of resources – including resources in Spanish and information for parents.
  2. To help decide where to apply, students and families can use the Education Department's College Scorecard, an online college comparison tool with data on costs, graduation rates, debt, post-college earnings, and more.
  3. To look past sticker price and get early, individualized estimates of financial aid, students can use net price calculators. These online tools are required to be on almost all college websites, and can help students start thinking about affordability early in their college search.
  4. Students and parents can now fill out the FAFSA on their phones, using FAFSA.gov or the myStudentAid mobile app. However, certain functionality is only available on FAFSA.gov and not currently available on the mobile app (e.g., access for undocumented parents who can’t get an FSA ID, and students’ ability to view their Student Aid Report or make corrections to their FAFSA).
  5. Since students can now start filling out the FAFSA on Oct. 1 each year, they should start building college lists during their junior year. Those lists should include colleges that students know they have a good chance of being accepted to and can afford. Students should also fight the urge to make a deposit before receiving and reviewing all award letters – wait until National College Decision Day (May 1)!
  6. When filling out the FAFSA, students and parents should use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) to electronically transfer their tax data into the FAFSA. This tool helps simplify and shorten the FAFSA process as well as reduce how much documentation students have to provide if they are selected for verification.
  7. Students are not done with the financial aid process after they complete the FAFSA! Some will be selected for verification and required to submit additional documentation to colleges before they can receive financial aid. Counselors can help by having students request IRS documentation early (tax transcripts if they or their parents filed taxes, and verification of non-filing if they didn’t file taxes), making sure they keep an eye out for verification, and reassuring them that being selected doesn’t mean they did anything wrong!
  8. Our research has found that many financial aid award letters are inconsistent, confusing, or misleading to students. Counselors can help by providing a glossary of terms, analyzing and comparing award letters with students and families, and brokering communication with colleges. See more tips here.
  9. When reviewing estimated bills, students should consider savings, tuition payment plans, summer work, and outside scholarships before considering loans. If they need to borrow, they should turn to federal loans first, which guarantee consumer protections and repayment options that private loans do not.
  10. For information about student loans, check out TICAS’ resources on projectonstudentdebt.org and the Education Department’s resources on StudentAid.gov and YouTube. The Education Department also offers an online repayment estimator that can help students see how expected borrowing translates into monthly payments and understand the range of repayment plans available for federal student loans (including some plans where payments can be as low as $0).

For more tips, see our handout from the conference.

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Yesterday, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR), together with Senators Stabenow (D-MI), Gillibrand (D-NY), Baldwin (D-WI), Blumenthal (D-CT), Schatz (D-HI), Cardin (D-MD), and Cortez Masto (D-NV) introduced the Affordable Loans for Any Student Act. At a time when one in four federal student loan borrowers are delinquent or in default on their student loans, this bill makes common-sense and urgently-needed changes to simplify and improve repayment options. If enacted, these ideas will ultimately help reduce default.

The new bill incorporates longstanding TICAS recommendations to streamline today’s multiple income-driven repayment (IDR) plans into a single, improved plan that works better for students and taxpayers. At the same time, it preserves borrowers’ ability to repay their loans through fixed monthly payments over a fixed period of time, if that is what they prefer. While IDR is not the right repayment plan for everyone, it provides more manageable monthly payments for many borrowers because payments are tied to income and family size. Data show that borrowers in IDR are less likely to be delinquent or in default than borrowers in other repayment plans.

The specifics of an IDR plan directly impact its ability to serve the critical role of a safeguard for borrowers struggling with unaffordable debt. The single IDR plan created in the Affordable Loans for Any Student Act takes important steps to help borrowers manage their student debt, and targets the plan’s benefits to those who need them the most. The proposed streamlined IDR plan includes the following key features:

  • Monthly payments are capped at 10 percent of income. A borrower’s monthly payments are equal to 10 percent of his or her adjusted gross income – as is currently the case in three of the five existing IDR plans. This helps ensure that student loan payments are a manageable share of a borrower’s income.
  • The monthly payment formula protects very low earnings, while targeting benefits to borrowers who need help the most.  All of today’s IDR plans recognize that borrowers must cover basic necessities like housing, food, and transportation before making payments toward student loans. The single IDR plan created in this bill expands this “income exclusion” threshold from 150 percent to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, so that a single borrower earning less than $30,000 a year would not be required to make student loan payments (the calculated payment would be $0). This income exclusion is gradually phased out for higher-income borrowers.
  • All borrowers in IDR make payments based on income. In some of the existing IDR plans, monthly payments are capped at the amount required under a fixed 10-year plan. This allows high-income borrowers to pay a smaller share of their income than lower-income borrowers. Like the REPAYE plan, the IDR plan created in this bill requires all borrowers to make payments based on their income. This increases the plan’s fairness, and would prevent borrowers with high incomes and high debt from receiving substantial loan forgiveness when they could have afforded to pay more.
  • Any remaining balance after 20 years of payments is forgiven. All borrowers in the PAYE and 2014 IBR plans, as well as borrowers with only undergraduate debt in the REPAYE plan, receive forgiveness after 20 years of payments. This represents a critical light at the end of the tunnel for borrowers whose incomes remain very low, relative to their debt, for decades. Maintaining this protection is important, because extending the repayment period for any subset of borrowers in IDR disproportionately harms the lowest income students, who take longer to repay their loans than higher-income borrowers.
  • Automates annual processes so borrowers can more easily continue making payments based on income. The latest Education Department data show that more than half (57 %) of borrowers enrolled in IDR plans miss their annual deadline to update their income information, which can lead to unaffordable spikes in monthly payment amounts and interest capitalization that adds significant cost to a loan. To eliminate this unnecessary burden on both students and loan servicers, this bill automates the annual process by allowing borrowers to give permission for the Department of Education to automatically access their required tax information, with the ability to revoke that permission at any time. The bipartisan SIMPLE Act and the White House’s latest budget request to Congress both propose this same change.
  • Automatically enrolls distressed borrowers in IDR. The bill notifies delinquent borrowers of IDR eligibility, and automatically enrolls borrowers who are severely delinquent (those who have not made any payments for 120 days) as well as borrowers who defaulted and completed rehabilitation into IDR. Borrowers would always have the opportunity to opt out of this process.

Beyond making these critical improvements and simplifications to IDR, the Affordable Loans for Any Student Act makes additional changes that will lower the cost and reduce the burden of student debt. For example, the bill eliminates interest capitalization and origination fees, limits income seizure for loan payments from borrowers in default, and consolidates existing deferment and forbearance options into a single, easy-to-understand “pause payment” process. The bill also requires school certification of private loans, which ensures that students are advised of their federal loan options prior to taking out private loans. Over half of undergraduate private student loan borrowers have remaining eligibility for federal loans, which are less risky and come with important consumer protections, such as IDR.

There is broad bipartisan recognition of the need to simplify the current array of IDR plans and improve the processes by which students repay their debt, and the Affordable Loans for Any Student Act stands out as the reform borrowers urgently need—reducing the costs and burden of student debt, simplifying and improving repayment options, and lowering the risk of default.

We applaud Senator Merkley for his continuing leadership on strengthening IDR to better serve struggling borrowers, and urge Congress to act quickly on this much-needed legislation. 

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At the national conferences last week for the National College Access Network (NCAN) and National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), I joined forces with uAspire’s Erica Rose and Bernadette Astacio to share counselor tips to help students and families understand financial aid, throughout the college decision process. We discussed how to help students decide where to apply, where to attend, and how to pay for college – covering topics such as the College Scorecard, net price calculators, mobile FAFSA, verification, financial aid award letters, and student loan options. Over 150 counselors, college representatives, and other college access professionals attended and actively engaged in our sessions.


In the days since our conference sessions, the Department of Education has made two major changes that significantly intersect with the material we covered. First, the myStudentAid mobile app was fully launched for the 2019-20 FAFSA, and students and families should be aware of some technical issues and limitations with that mobile app. Additionally, the Department removed important information from its College Scorecard consumer site – national comparisons on cost, affordability, and outcomes, as well as the share of former students at a college who earn more than the typical high school graduate.

On October 1st, the 2019-20 FAFSA became available on the Department’s myStudentAid mobile app as well as on FAFSA.gov – which is also now mobile-friendly. While this is good news for students and parents, there are technical issues (reported by NCAN and NASFAA) and limitations to be aware of. Students and parents using the mobile app who are unable to electronically transfer their tax information using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool (DRT) should try updating the app to the latest version or, if that fails, use FAFSA.gov instead. The DRT is a key tool for simplifying and shortening the FAFSA process, as well as reducing how much documentation students have to provide if they are selected for “verification,” so it is worth trying to use the DRT in a different way rather than input the information manually. Additionally, certain functionality is only available on FAFSA.gov and not currently available on the mobile app. This includes parents’ ability to transfer their data to another child’s FAFSA or access the FAFSA if they can’t get an FSA ID (e.g., if they are undocumented), as well as students’ ability to view their Student Aid Report (SAR) or make corrections to their FAFSA. Students should also watch out for short time-out periods on the mobile app, to avoid losing their entered data if they answer a phone call or get otherwise interrupted while using the app.

On September 28th, the Department eliminated critical contextual information from its College Scorecard tool. The College Scorecard is an online college comparison tool that can help students decide where to apply. For years, the Scorecard has included context on whether a college’s cost, graduation rate, student loan repayment rate, and post-college earnings are higher or lower than the national average. For example, the screenshot below was taken in July 2018, from the Scorecard page for the University of Pittsburgh – Pittsburgh campus.

However, as of last Friday, that national comparison is gone (see screenshot below, which also reflects other data updates made in September).

The Department has removed the national average, now arguing that it would be more appropriate to compare outcomes to other colleges with similar levels of selectivity or serving similar student populations. However, without seeing the national average or any other comparison, students and families are left with no way to tell whether a college’s cost, affordability, or outcomes should be considered high or low. As a result, all the colleges on a student’s list could be unaffordable or have low likelihoods of student success, but students would not have that critical context. For more on this issue, see this blog post from Clare McCann at New America.

Additionally, the Scorecard consumer site (available online as well as on the myStudentAid mobile app) no longer includes the share of former students at each college who earn more than the typical high school graduate. The Department used to describe this measure as “a baseline measure of success—is the typical student who attended this institution in better financial circumstances than if he had begun working with only a high school diploma?” While this measure is still available for download, it no longer appears on the school profiles for students and families.

These changes are, together, unfortunate turns for a consumer tool that has represented a valuable step forward toward providing students and families with more accessible, transparent, and comparable information about colleges’ costs and outcomes. We urge the Department to restore this information to the Scorecard consumer site as soon as possible.

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Today, we updated College InSight (www.college-insight.org) – our unique web site for higher education research – with selected data for academic year 2016-17. These updated data include the cumulative debt of graduates, college costs, racial diversity, and the financial aid received by undergraduates.

For nine years, College InSight has been an easy-to-use, consumer-friendly resource for anyone interested in analyzing issues related to college affordability, diversity, and student success. Whether you are a prospective student interested in the racial and ethnic diversity of colleges you’re considering, an institutional researcher curious about how your college’s institutional grant aid awarding compares with that of peer institutions, or a policymaker trying to better understand differences in costs and debt across different types of institutions or states, this database is a valuable resource to identify and highlight important trends in higher education.

College InSight includes rich data from over 12,000 U.S. colleges and universities and nearly 200 variables. Unlike other higher education data tools, College InSight features totals and averages for states, sectors, and other groupings of colleges. In addition to data from the Department of Education, this tool includes undergraduate financial aid data from the Common Data Set (CDS), such as financial need, institutional grants, and the cumulative debt of graduates.

If you’re interested in student debt data, check out our 13th annual report, Student Debt and the Class of 2017, which was also released today. This report covers student debt for bachelor’s degree graduates from public and nonprofit colleges. Our interactive state map features state averages as well as college-level data, and connects to College InSight. 

If you have any questions or suggestions about our data, please email us at collegeinsight@ticas.org.

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The gainful employment rule enforces the Higher Education Act’s requirement that all career education programs receiving federal student aid “prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” The rule uses debt-to-earnings ratios to assess whether career education programs at public, nonprofit, and for-profit colleges are leaving their graduates with reasonable debt burdens. Programs that exceed allowable thresholds—those consistently leaving their graduates with more debt than they can repay—must improve or lose eligibility for federal funding. This rule also provides consumers with key information about program costs and outcomes so they can make an informed decision about where to enroll.

The Department of Education has proposed rescinding the gainful employment rule completely, arguing that programs’ performance under the rule can be explained by factors like student characteristics and economic background, program field, and school location. However, similarly located career education programs serving similar students can have very different outcomes.

We recently identified several poorly performing programs that are located near programs that have much lower cost and/or much better outcomes. For example:

  • In Birmingham (AL), graduates from the criminal justice administration bachelor’s degree program at Strayer University typically earned almost twice as much and owed $6,600 (20 percent) less than graduates from the same program at Virginia College.
  • In South Plainfield (NJ), graduates from the dental assisting certificate program at Central Career School typically earned $6,600 more per year and owed about half as much as graduates from the same program at Everest Institute.

In addition to providing the same program in the same city, the schools in each comparison serve demographically similar groups of students, as measured by the share of the student body that receives Pell Grants, is Black, or is Hispanic/Latino.

These examples demonstrate the need for the gainful employment rule to prevent poorly performing programs from continuing to bilk students and taxpayers, and to keep unscrupulous schools from enrolling as many students as possible without regard to the quality of the training or job prospects. They also show that students have alternative options for where to enroll even if poorly performing programs close.

To learn more, check out:

  • Our new analysis for more comparisons. 
  • Our comments on the Department’s proposal to rescind the gainful employment rule.
  • The comment submitted by 68 organizations representing students, consumers, veterans, service members, faculty and staff, civil rights, and college access – demonstrating broad support for affordable, quality career education.

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This week, in a strong showing of bipartisan commitment to strengthening federal student loan counseling, the House of Representatives passed the Empowering Students Through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act (H.R. 1635). The bill, introduced by Representatives Guthrie (R-KY) and Bonamici (D-OR), makes key improvements to the timing and content of counseling that all federal student loan borrowers must receive. These changes include ensuring students receive information about their borrowing options and obligations every year, requiring consumer testing of the Department of Education’s online loan counseling tool, and explicitly advising students to exhaust their federal student loan eligibility prior to considering riskier private loans.

Federal student loan borrowers are currently required to complete counseling only twice – once before taking out their first loan, and once upon completing or exiting their program. Thousands of schools use the online student loan counseling tools offered by the Department of Education to provide this counseling. These tools have greatly improved over the years, including through modernizing and streamlining the format, and more fully integrating existing income-driven repayment options into loan repayment plan explanations, as we’ve long recommended. However, by requiring consumer testing of a new online annual counseling tool developed by the Department of Education, the bill passed by the House recognizes that more can and should be done to ensure that the information students receive about their loans is relevant and easy to understand. Students can easily become overwhelmed by the complex information and new terms and concepts related to student loans and repayment. Consumer testing is critical for designing counseling that avoids such common pitfalls and maximizes the potential of counseling to support students making consequential decisions about how to pay for college every year.

The bill also includes a key provision that requires loan counseling to advise students to exhaust their federal student loan eligibility prior to considering riskier private loans, and to provide information about important consumer protections that are unique to federal student loans. This guidance is critical: data show that over half of students who take out private loans having remaining federal student loan eligibility.[1]

Too many students face a financial reality that necessitates borrowing to cover the cost of college; and for students facing the largest financial barriers, not borrowing means not pursuing or completing a degree at all. While loan counseling on its own – however improved – will not solve the problem of college affordability or prevent potentially burdensome student debt payments, it is key to ensuring that students are at least equipped with the necessary understanding of federal loan terms, including options for repayment, before they sign on the dotted line. We thank Representatives Guthrie and Bonamici for their longstanding leadership on this issue, and urge the Senate to follow the House’s direction in making these bipartisan, common sense reforms to student loan counseling.

[1] TICAS analysis using the U.S. Department of Education’s National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), 2015-16.

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The gainful employment rule enforces the Higher Education Act’s requirement that all career education programs receiving federal student aid “prepare students for gainful employment in a recognized occupation.” The rule uses debt-to-earnings ratios to assess whether career education programs at public, nonprofit, and for-profit colleges are leaving their graduates with reasonable debt burdens. Programs that exceed allowable thresholds—those consistently leaving their graduates with more debt than they can repay—must improve or lose eligibility for federal funding.

The gainful employment rule is needed to prevent programs like those from bilking students and taxpayers. Yet the Department of Education has proposed rescinding the gainful employment rule completely, which would be costly in several ways. Our new analysis illustrates one aspect of the cost to students – quantifying how much they borrowed to attend the worst-performing career education programs.

A single round of Department of Education data showed that more than 350,000 students graduated from the worst-performing career education programs with nearly $7.5 billion in student loan debt. Those programs, rated as “failing” or “zone” in the Department’s existing gainful employment rule, would eventually lose access to federal financial aid if they did not improve.

The table below shows the five states with the most failing and zone program graduates, and the amount they borrowed to attend those programs. For example, more than 56,000 students graduated from the worst-performing programs at California colleges, with $930 million in debt to repay.

(college location)

Graduates at failing and zone programs

Amount borrowed to attend failing and zone programs
















Most of these students graduated in 2010-11 or 2011-12, though smaller programs included graduates over a 4-year period. Note that some colleges based in these states have branch campuses in other states (e.g., ITT Technical Institute, University of Phoenix, and DeVry University); due to data limitations, all graduates are counted under the state where their college’s main campus is located. To see the full state-by-state table and details about our methodology, see our new factsheet.

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By Diane Cheng (TICAS), Rachel Fishman (New America), and Laura Keane (uAspire)

Financial aid award letters are crucial tools for students and families to determine which colleges are within reach, but many letters are difficult to decipher and compare. TICAS’ December 2017 analysis of almost 200 award letters, and New America and uAspire’s June 2018 analysis of over 500 award letters from unique institutions found numerous ways in which those letters are inconsistent, confusing, and in many cases misleading to students – such as omitting costs, grouping grants and loans together, using different terms for the same type of aid, and not calculating a bottom-line net price to show how much the student and family will have to cover.

We’re excited to see growing momentum for improving award letters, and we applaud the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators’ (NASFAA) recent support for requirements that would set standard terminology and formatting practices for award letters. Specifically, at their recent national conference, the NASFAA Board decided to:

  • “Support a policy that would require schools to disclose estimated cost, as well as an estimated net price in their award notifications.
  • Support requirements that the federal government, in partnership with financial aid professionals, develop a set of common, consumer-tested terminologies and definitions for student aid programs.
  • Support requirements that grants and loans and other self-help aid not be listed together in award letters, and that loans always be clearly labeled as such.”

Here’s why this matters: (See actual award letter examples of these practices in our reports)

  • Providing the full cost of attendance
    • Financial aid is only part of the equation when determining which colleges are within financial reach – students also have to know how much the colleges will cost. For example, when buying a car, it’s not enough to know that you have a $2,500 rebate – you also have to know whether the car costs $10,000 or $25,000. However, a large share of award letters include no cost information at all, and some of those that do include some cost information include only tuition and fees and other costs paid directly to the college. Yet students’ understanding of total costs is critical to being able to assess their ability to pay for them. Basic living expenses such as housing and food are part of the cost of attending college, and students also need to pay for transportation as well as textbooks and supplies to be able to attend class and study.
  • Separating grants from loans and work-study
    • There are important and big distinctions between types of aid - grants and scholarships don’t have to be paid back, loans need to be repaid with interest, and work-study funds need to be earned over time after securing a qualifying job. Unfortunately, both of our analyses found that less than a quarter of award letters separate grants, loans, and work-study. Many award letters presented all the aid types lumped together – leaving students left to sort out what strings are attached to each aid offer. Clearly separating aid by type with simple explanations can improve student decision-making.
  • Calculating net price
    • Net price is the difference between the full cost of attendance and grant/scholarship aid. It’s the remaining amount that a student needs to cover through savings, earnings, or loans to attend the school. Comparing net prices is crucial to getting an apples-to-apples comparison of how much money students and their families will have to pay to get to and through college.
    • Our analyses found that many award letters don’t calculate any bottom line cost, and those that did used inconsistent calculations. New America and uAspire research found over 23 different calculations for this bottom-line cost, which makes comparisons among letters almost impossible, and TICAS’ analysis found that only 13% of award letters included the net price.
    • It’s also important for students and families to know what their “estimated bill” is going to be, namely, what they will need to pay directly to the school before they can enroll and start classes. uAspire has seen time and again students choose their school based on their financial aid packages in the Spring, only to receive a bill in the Summer that is much higher than what they anticipated.
  • Using standard terms and definitions
    • Award letters are filled with jargon and inconsistent terms for the same type of aid. For example, New America and uAspire found that the 455 colleges that included unsubsidized student loans in their aid packages listed them in 136 unique ways, and 24 of those ways didn’t even include the word “loan.” Student-centered communication of mandated common terms and definitions will significantly increase transparency.
    • It is important to consumer test these terms and definitions with stakeholders, including students (particularly low-income and first-generation students who may be less familiar with the college process), parents, college advisors, consumer advocates, financial aid administrators, and others.

With clearer and more comparable award letters, students and families will be able to make more informed decisions about where to go to college and how to pay for it. NASFAA’s recent Board decision aligns with our belief that poor communication that obscures costs and available financial aid serves neither students nor schools. Unclear costs and uncertainty about how to cover them put students at risk of dropping out if their bill is larger than anticipated— and dropping out is one of the major predictors of federal student loan default. Both students and colleges are better off when more students are able to complete and repay their loans successfully. While, in and of themselves, award letters will not solve the gaps in financial aid that create affordability challenges for students, improvements to those communications will help ensure that students and families clearly and accurately understand the costs they’ll be facing.

We applaud NASFAA, federal and state policymakers, as well as college financial aid administrators who see themselves as part of the solution. uAspire has already heard from colleges that are leading the way to improve their own award letters, including Colorado State University, the University of Missouri, and Dartmouth College. If you are working to improve student-centered communication of financial aid offers, we would love to hear from you.

To learn more about the shortcomings of financial aid award letters and policy solutions to improve transparency of college costs and aid, check out our research:

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