Paying for college is a heavy financial burden for most of us—we just wrote a five-figure fall check that left us reeling. The admission process and associated costs have left us exhausted and frustrated. While the larger issue of college affordability is being discussed and debated in legislatures and higher education departments, as a family that recently concluded our second rodeo admissions, we have a few suggestions that would increase transparency around cost and reduce the burden on families.
Create an accurate global net price calculator
The Net Price Calculator (NPC) is a tool families use to determine the expected cost at each college. But chasing an NPC on the website of each college of interest and then repeatedly entering similar information is an unnecessary administrative burden on families and an obstacle for those who do not have time to devote to this task.
The results obtained by NPCs can be inaccurate and confusing. There is a fixed number of NPC fields, but each college uses a different calculation method to generate the expected cost to the family. A comprehensive study in March 2019 found that some calculators performed poorly because they relied on two-year-old data, calculated a cost of attendance that included loans or neglected to add living costs to the final price. Anecdotally, with the exception of one college, every offer our son received was 10-20 percent below the net price calculator amount.
Create a global NPC that applies the specified formulas to static fields. Families can enter their information once to find net price amounts for multiple colleges and compare multiple offers. While some colleges participate in the College Board’s net rate tool, it is not enough to use it.
Bring more transparency to actual reward data
“Don’t worry, most people don’t pay for the sticker” is something colleges say to families, but they rarely follow up with information about what applicants will actually pay. The truth is, everyone pays a different price for the same college. Giving families insight into how much students with similar financial situations pay would help families make better decisions about which colleges they should apply to.
Services like TuitionFit and MeritMore offer crowdsourcing data and give families more transparency regarding the actual cost of college. But rather than relying on third parties to collect and disseminate this information, colleges can easily make their cost data available to potential applicants.
Applicants do not use nickel and dime
Self-reporting of test scores should become global. Charging a fee of $50 to $80 per application is a steep fee for most families. Combine that with submitting official ACT or SAT scores ($12 or $13 per report), and costs will start to add up quickly. Some schools allow self-report, which usually means reporting your score through the Common Application and then submitting an official score upon admission. Individual college policies are hard to find, and they may not even appear on the college’s website. A comprehensive self-reporting test score policy would save money and time.
Colleges should also stop restricting applicants to pay-to-play instruments that can only be used for admission. Many colleges allow applicants to submit their files, even those who do not apply to studio-based programs. A portfolio is a great way to showcase talent and work that isn’t easy to communicate through words. SlideRoom, a popular tool for portfolio creation and presentation, is integrated into the Common Application. Applicants pay $5 per application to use this tool, and in many colleges, this is the only option to submit a portfolio. Free online portfolio tools are readily available and must be accepted by all colleges.
Consolidation of the financial offer letter
A report evaluating offer letters from more than 500 institutions confirms what families already know: Offer letters are absurdly confusing and often misleading. Families who do not fully understand offering their students financial aid before committing to school can face costly problems in the future.
The logical solution is to standardize university offer letters so that the four main problems with offer letters are now eliminated: confusing language and terminology; exclusion of the actual net price after financial assistance; Grant amounts that include loan funds that require repayment; Grants, loans, and non-billable expenses that are not clearly marked.
All offer letters must also include scholarship requirements with terms of renewal and scholarship stacking policies (the rules governing whether a college will deduct the amount of any special scholarships from its award). With standardized offer letters, families can easily compare financial aid packages from different schools and quickly see details of loan amounts versus grant amounts that have been offered to them.
Allow families to hoard private scholarships
Special scholarships reduce college expenses, sometimes dramatically. Many colleges do not allow scholarships to be stacked (adding special scholarships to financial aid awards). Stacking policies are opaque and often difficult to find on the college’s website. Families sometimes don’t realize that college assistance will be reduced if they receive a special scholarship. Finding non-loan help should never be penalized, and scholarships should be allowed to build up globally.
College affordability is a serious issue for most of us. The larger project to tackle the amount we pay to college requires that higher education leaders come together and agree on a fundamental change. Until then, some progress can be made by increasing the accuracy and transparency of costs and adopting some practical solutions to reduce the financial burden of the admission process on families.