The College Shopping Sheet and the Needed Transparency of Financial Aid

As admissions into colleges and universities has become ever more challenging,  applying for financial aid  and understanding the financial aid letter once received, is  an equally grueling, though often neglected, piece of the admissions process.

Many families today are making grants and scholarships instrumental in their college searches. For good reason as half of parents, according to a survey conducted by Sallie Mae (the nickname for the SLM Corporation, a publicly traded US Government corporation that originates, collects and services student loans) are not regularly putting aside savings for college:. This reality is reflected in the financial aid awarded over the last 5 years. In 2009, about 50% of families used grants and scholarships to pay for college. Today 65% are. Most want to avoid incurring onerous student debt, which amounts to well over $1 trillion.

One way of avoiding being encumbered by a portion of this mountain of debt is to understand the financial aid award letter that arrives within weeks of an acceptance letter. The financial aid letter should clearly define the Cost of Attendance (COA)  by breaking it down, clearly, into tuition and all fees, room and board, books and supplies, and realistic transportation and personal expenses.  

It should then identify each award component, so that the student knows what amount is a scholarship or grant (which will never have to be repaid), what are subsidized loans (which have low interest rates and have interest and repayment schedules that don’t kick in until months after graduation), and what are just loans (such as the Parent Plus loans that can have higher interest rates and are not discharged even if one declares Chapter 7 or 13 bankruptcy). Confusion often occurs when financial aid letters includes certain loans—such as Parent Plus loans-- in its net cost calculation. A better method would be to calculate the COA and only subtract gift aid (grants and scholarships).

Additionally, all the loans should disclose interest rates, fees, term in years and activation date of the loan, and whether it is a student or parent obligation. For example an unsubsidized Stafford loan bears interest 3.83%, fee 1%, term 10 years, with interest accruing on the date the loan is disbursed and is capitalized (added to the loan balance).  

To contend with the complexities of the financial aid world the US Education Department along with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau introduced the College Shopping Sheet (CSS) in July 2012. You can view a sample of the form at http://collegecost.ed.gov/shopping_sheet.pdf. If you didn’t see a facsimile of it in your financial aid letters during the last months, it is because it is not mandatory for most colleges to use with most students. For the 2013-2014 admissions cycle, 2,000 schools claim to have adopted the sheet. The problem is this represents fewer than half the 4,500 degree granting postsecondary school universe. Furthermore, 40% of the 2000 schools that have adopted the CSS use it only for students who are military veterans. 

Making the CSS a standard would make college financial aid much more transparent. It presents on one page all the COA, total grants and scholarships, net costs and work/study and loan options. The right column of the CSS then displays the institution’s graduation rate, the loan default percentage rates for the school, and compares both with the national average.    

If you received financial aid from the University of California during the 2013-2014 school year, you received a CSS.  This is also true of students attending SUNY, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Texas public school systems, as well as such private schools as Vassar College and Syracuse University.

As Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education notes, ‘to make the program mandatory for all schools…would require an act of Congress.’ Senator Alan Franken of Minnesota decided to introduce such legislation after he attended a series of roundtables with students who often remarked, ‘I didn’t realize what I was going to owe at the end of this.’ With a College Shopping Sheet they’ll have a much better idea.