Simplifying the college aid maze

By Nina W. Marks
Friday, April 16, 2010

For low-income applicants to U.S. colleges, April remains the cruelest month. By early April, almost all admission decisions are known. Colleges shift from screening applications to wooing admitted students. Affluent students can attend "pre-frosh" events and enjoy being courted.

Most low-income applicants, however, spend April trying to figure out whether they can afford to pursue their dreams.

The "fat envelope" spelling out good news is only occasionally accompanied by easily comprehensible financial aid information. Low-income applicants accepted at several schools may find that their aid offers differ markedly in their delivery date, format, language and presentation. Sometimes students must navigate a complicated Web site to get to their specific offer. Offers enclosed with admissions letters are often difficult to understand. Furthermore, aid offers do not always distinguish among or clearly describe grants, subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and student/family contributions, complicating efforts at comparisons.

The problem is compounded when all offers aren't in a student's hands until close to May 1. All students are held to this response deadline, and they almost always are required to submit a non-refundable deposit -- up to $700 -- to hold a spot. Even students with the highest need are rarely offered a reduced deposit.

Our country needs a better system.

For low-income families, particularly those whose students will be the first generation to attend college or who are not native English speakers, understanding whether they can afford to send a child to college can be the hardest part of the admission process.

The federal government has helped in some ways. In 2009, the number of students who submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) jumped almost 21 percent. The newly simplified FAFSA and the FAFSA4caster, which gives an early estimate of likely federal funding, assist all low-income applicants, especially first-generation-to-college students. The student loan overhaul that President Obama recently signed will make it easier for parents to borrow federal funds and for future graduates to repay student loans. The legislation included a slight boost in the number and size of Pell grants, which are based on need, but that won't transform the financial aid landscape.

Only colleges can solve the problems created by their disparate approaches to financial aid offers. The good news is that our universities have already addressed similar complexities. More than 400 have adopted a common application, an idea first introduced 35 years ago. Students and their high schools complete one application form for participating colleges (though some require supplementary information and/or essays). This academic year, about 1.4 million applications were submitted that way.

What's needed is a comparable effort to standardize notification of college financial aid: a common financial aid offer form. In simple language and a user-friendly format, the "common offer form" would highlight the cost of a year's attendance, including books, travel and living expenses. This would improve on the current practice of highlighting costs per semester and of aligning grants with loans and student/family contributions under "awards."

Providing a point of contact would also make the financial aid process more accessible to the students it seeks to help. Financial aid offices could take a page from admissions offices and designate a financial aid officer to communicate with students and families from a particular region.

As a matter of fairness, colleges should make sure their practices at this time of year encourage -- not discourage -- the enrollment of first-generation-to-college students. Colleges should also recognize that students' difficult experiences with the financial aid office affect how many admitted students decide to attend.

Colleges that accept the common application should take the lead in simplifying next year's delivery of financial aid information by using a common offer form. If they agreed to enclose such a form with each admission decision, or at the latest by April 15, low-income students would have at least two weeks in which to review and compare offers, refer questions and clarifying information to the same aid official, confirm their final choice, and submit their enrollment deposit by May 1. Low-income students would have more time to enjoy good news in April, and -- most important -- better tools to make an informed college choice.

The writer is president of Collegiate Directions Inc. a nonprofit that works with low-income, first-generation-to-college students from public schools.


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