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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The New York Times ran the editorial "Help Needed for Student Debtors" yesterday, reviewing the recently-released official two-year cohort default rates for fiscal year 2009. The rates show a sharp uptick in defaults, with 8.8 percent of student loan borrowers who entered repayment in 2009 defaulting by the end of 2010, up from 7 percent for those who entered repayment in 2008.

Following-up on an article that ran earlier in the week, the NYT Editorial Board also promotes the Income-Based Repayment program, that can help struggling borrowers remain in good standing, writing "the government needs to make sure that borrowers at risk of default have access to this program." Read the editorial and article

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A recent New York Times blog post discusses the potential strengths and weaknesses of net price calculators, which will appear on almost all college websites by October 29. Here’s our take:

Net price calculators can indeed be a “game changer” for prospective college students and their families. Armed with early, individualized, and comparable estimates of college costs (after subtracting grants and scholarships), students will be able to make more informed decisions about college at all stages of the process. Net price calculators can help students look past “sticker price” and discover that their dream school may be more (or less) affordable than they thought – before it is too late and most of their college decisions have already been made.

The blog post focuses a lot of attention on how accurately net price calculators can predict a student’s exact financial aid package, but we think that’s the wrong question. Net price calculators are intended to provide estimates that help students figure out which schools might be within reach, before they decide where to apply. At that early stage of the process, ease of use is more critical than precision.

We have been monitoring net price calculators over the past year and found, as noted in the blog post, that there is a great deal of variation in the way colleges have been designing and posting their calculators. To best serve the needs of prospective students and their families, net price calculators should all:

  • Be easy to find – colleges should prominently post links to their calculators in areas of their websites that prospective students are likely to visit
  • Be easy to use – limit the number of required questions, make it clear which questions are required, and keep the questions simple
  • Present results that are easy to understand and compare – emphasize the “net price figure,” not what’s left after subtracting work-study and loans
  • Protect students’ personal information – make it clear that submitting contact information is optional, protect users’ privacy, and inform them about how owns and has access to their information

For more information about net price calculators, and to find out more about our findings and recommendations, please view our report, “Adding It All Up: An Early Look at Net Price Calculators.”

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Pauline Abernathy, Vice President of The Institute for College Access & Success, testified on June 7, 2011 before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee at the hearing entitled “Drowning in Debt: Financial Outcomes of Students at For-Profit Colleges,” discussing trends and disparities related to student debt, completion and post‐completion success at for‐profit career colleges compared to other types of schools.

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Last week the U.S. Department of Education released aggregate two-year cohort default rates for fiscal year 2009. The new numbers capture total counts of student loan borrowers who entered repayment in FY 2009 and had defaulted by the end of FY 2010.

Individual college’s CDRs will not be made public until September, but the aggregate figures show some alarming trends. Across all colleges, about 328,000 borrowers who entered repayment in 2009 defaulted by the end of 2010 – about 89,000 more than the 239,000 borrowers who entered repayment in 2008 and defaulted by the end of 2009. More than half of this increase came from students who attended for-profit schools: about 51,000 of the 89,000.

As in previous years, for-profit colleges overall continued to have the highest rates of default. For the FY 2009 cohort, 15.2 percent of borrowers from for-profit colleges defaulted – more than twice the rate at public colleges (7.3 percent) and more than three times the rate of non-profit colleges (4.7 percent). For-profit colleges also experienced the biggest increase between 2008 and 2009 rates – a 31 percent jump compared to 22 percent at public colleges and 18 percent at non-profits.

With a sharp uptick in the number of students defaulting, the new data clearly demonstrate the need for adequate protections for borrowers and accountability for schools. Last week we submitted comments to the Department with suggestions for where regulations could be strengthened on both of these fronts.

Check out our comments to the Department here.

Learn more about cohort default rates on our resource page, and see the new data from the Department on their site.

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In February 2011, the U.S. Department of Education released “unofficial trial three-year cohort default rates” (CDRs) for colleges around the country based on students who entered repayment on their federal student loans in FY2008. The purpose of these unofficial rates is to help colleges prepare for the release of official three-year CDRs next year, which will be based on students who entered repayment in FY2009. Only if a college’s official rate exceeds certain thresholds is a school subject to sanctions.

This week, the Department informed schools that the unofficial trial FY2008 CDRs released in February reflected defaults in the first 3.3 years of repayment, rather than the first three years of repayment, and the Department issued recalculated rates for just the first three years. Because the recalculated rates cover a shorter period of time, the rates for all schools are slightly lower, but they reveal the same troubling picture as the rates released in February:

  • Nearly half of all defaulters (47%) attended proprietary (for-profit) colleges even though only about 1 in 10 students attends these colleges;
  • The average CDR for proprietary colleges (22.3 percent) is still more than double the rates for public and non-profit colleges (9.7 and 6.8 percent, respectively);
  • Default rates rose more steeply in the third year of repayment at proprietary colleges (93 percent) than at other types of schools (60 and 69 percent at publics and non-profits, respectively);
  • Across all colleges, 176,000 former students defaulted in their third year of repayment, but their former schools are not currently being held accountable for these defaults; and
  • These data underscore the need for a strong gainful employment rule that will go into effect in 2012 to prevent taxpayer dollars from continuing to be wasted on ineffective or exploitative career education programs.

In early 2012, the Department will release draft official three-year FY2009 CDRs to colleges for their review before final official rates are released later in the year. This standard procedure for releasing official CDRs gives colleges time to review the data and appeal any potential sanctions before the official rates are finalized.

See our CDR resource page for quick links to individual colleges’ cohort default rates and federal student loan repayment rates, and other background information.

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For the past few years, we’ve analyzed the share of community college students, nationally and by state, who lack access to federal student loans because their colleges decided to not make them available. North Carolina has consistently ranked poorly in our analyses. To improve students’ access to this important source of aid, last year the state legislature required all community colleges to participate in the loan program by 2011-12. But this year, the legislature reversed course. It passed a bill (NC House Bill 7) that lets colleges opt out of the new requirement, which has not yet gone into effect.

Earlier today, North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue took a historic step towards ensuring access to aid for the state’s community college students by vetoing House Bill 7. This issue is of critical importance in the state right now. With more students than ever seeking education and training at community colleges, North Carolina now ranks absolute last in the share of students with loan access in 2010-11 (as detailed in our new analysis to be released this month). While we don’t usually share such a major finding in advance, we wanted to call attention to the significance of Governor Perdue’s decision today.

You can read our letter to Governor Perdue asking her to consider a veto here, and our thank you letter to the Governor here.

- Debbie Cochrane Program Director

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The House Budget Committee’s FY2012 federal budget plan would cut Pell Grant funding to “pre-stimulus levels,” eliminating or slashing grants for more than nine million students. Assuming no other changes in the program, this would require a 62 percent cut in the maximum Pell Grant—from $5,550 in school year 2011-12 to $2,090 in 2012-13. [See our statement on the budget plan here.]

To try to justify such a drastic cut, the House Budget Committee references a 2005 study that found “little evidence” that Pell Grants lead to increases in in-state tuition at public colleges, but at private nonprofit four-year colleges, increases in Pell grants appeared to be matched with increases in tuition between 1989 and 1996.1 However, leading higher education economists agree that there is no clear link between Pell Grants and tuition levels. See our summary for more about research on this issue.

Economist Sandy Baum wrote last year, “There is no convincing evidence that increases in Pell Grants feed tuition increases in either public or private not-for-profit institutions.”2 Some studies have found no relationship, while others have found Pell Grants to be related to lower tuition prices. For example, a 2011 analysis found that “past increases in the federal Pell Grant maximum tend to reduce average [published] tuition today” at private nonprofit four-year colleges, by lowering the need for tuition discounting.3

In testimony before Congress, economist Bridget Terry Long noted, “Most studies conclude that colleges are not responding to federal aid, and studies that do provide limited support for the notion are plagued by mixed and sometimes contradictory results. Evidence suggests growth in tuition prices is instead related to a myriad of other internal and external factors.”4 Assessing the 2005 study cited by the House Budget Committee, Long explained, “[B]ecause these [private nonprofit four-year] institutions have few Pell recipients (i.e., they have few students impacted by the change in aid policy), the results seem attributable to factors other than government aid policy. Limitations with the data prevent more conclusive analysis.”5 According to the President’s FY2012 Budget Request, only 12% of Pell Grant recipients attend private nonprofit colleges.

For more information, see our summary of experts’ comments on this issue.

1Singell, Larry D., Jr. and Joe A. Stone. 2005. For Whom the Pell Tolls: The Response of University Tuition to Federal Grants-in-Aid. Accessed April 5, 2011.

2Baum, Sandy. 2010. “Losing Ground.” New York Times, February 3. Accessed April 6, 2011.

3Archibald, Robert B. and David H. Feldman. 2011. Why Does College Cost So Much? Oxford: Oxford University Press. 205.

4Long, Bridget Terry. 2006. College Tuition Pricing and Federal Financial Aid: Is there a Connection? Testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance. Accessed April 6, 2011.


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