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.