Michelle Singletary
Michelle Singletary
Columnist

Colleges should offer transparent cost sheets

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has penned an open letter to more than 7,000 college presidents asking them to use a new one-page “shopping sheet” intended to help students and their families see clearly the amount of loans they may need to attend an institution and how much in grants and scholarships they would receive.

In his letter, Duncan noted that he felt many schools needed to be more transparent.

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“Students should not have to wait until after they graduate to find out the size of their monthly student loan payment,” he wrote. “Families choosing a college should have clear and comparable information in a common format to guide their choice. And no one should forgo college because they think they cannot afford it.”

Duncan’s letter immediately made me think of the Temptations song “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” The song was about a man begging his girl to stay. Still, stay with me on this analogy.

The key lyrics applicable in this case: “If I have to beg, plead for your sympathy, I don’t mind ’cause you mean that much to me.”

Clearly, cost simplicity matters to Duncan and the Obama administration. Any student graduating with unmanageable education loans is one too many.

“Our goal is that more students will arrive at school each fall less worried about how they will pay for college and more focused on how they will complete college,” Duncan wrote to the presidents. “We know that you share that goal, and so we hope that you will join your colleagues across the country who have already agreed to adopt the ‘shopping sheet’ starting in the 2013-2014 school year.”

I’ve asked before: Why are we begging these schools to follow a standard format that everyone would get so they can determine what they can afford? It’s like the guy in the same Temptations song who says, “I’m not ashamed to come and plead to you, baby.”

Please, let’s not plead. It’s pitiful.

Schools already provide cost information, but many families complain that what they are given is often confusing, making it hard for them to compare college costs or figure their total borrowing if a certain school is selected.

I’m frustrated in my own little world trying to help parents and students, some of whom won’t even get a degree, deal with their student loan debt. This is going to be our next financial crisis if we don’t begin to tackle the student loan problem.

We can stop the begging by passing legislation introduced this year by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) with several co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle. The Understanding the True Cost of College Act would require schools to use the same universal financial aid award letter so that students could easily compare financial-aid packages. Since the standard shopping sheet has been created, all that is left is taking away the choice.

“Cost is an incredibly important factor in the college decision-making process, but you can’t make an informed decision if you don’t know exactly how much each school is really going to cost you,” Franken said in response to the final version of the shopping sheet. “The White House’s introduction of a shopping sheet, also known as a universal financial aid award letter, is a step in the right direction, and I want to thank them for recognizing that this problem needs to be addressed. But unless a universal financial aid award form is made mandatory, colleges will still be able to use whatever form they want, and families won’t be able to compare apples to apples when evaluating financial aid offers.”

What can you do until all the schools either voluntarily use the shopping sheet or are forced to use it?

I would question any school that doesn’t want to use the shopping sheet. It would make me wonder what they might be trying to obscure. If the school didn’t consider using the shopping sheet, download it yourself. Take the responsibility on yourself to use the template to get an idea of how much you or your child will have to shell out and not just for that first year. Work the numbers for the entire time of attendance. Go to www.ed.gov. Search for “Shopping Sheet.” You’ll find a link within Duncan’s letter to the shopping sheet.

Franken said the legislation he introduced in May would solve the transparency problem. And I agree. No more begging.

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or singletarym@
washpost.com. Personal responses may not be possible, and comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

 
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