Financial aid letters are far from perfect, but critics who say colleges are intentionally misleading, as did some of those quoted in a recent Hechinger Report article, are mistaken. For critics to say this is standard practice serves no one — students, families or colleges.
Financial aid professionals are not sitting around in some dark room designing a financial aid award letter to trick students into choosing a college.
What is it exactly that colleges have to gain from developing misleading financial aid award letters to trick families? Some may say tuition dollars, but having a business plan that calls for enrolling students who can’t really afford to be there long term isn’t a very good retention strategy and doesn’t lead to those happy graduates we’d like. And it certainly does not align with the mission of most colleges, which is to educate students. I can’t imagine the desire for more government intervention and oversight would be the motivation either.
In the past, we’ve heard the Secretary of Education say that it takes a Ph.D. to complete the FAFSA. And, now, perhaps, it takes an advanced degree to read an aid award letter. The recent article cited finance professionals who can’t read financial aid award letters. Honestly, I am not surprised some of these finance folks and venture capitalists can’t read one — despite my 23 years of experience in admissions and financial aid, sometimes even I have difficulty interpreting award letters that use varying formats and terms.
Financial aid policies and awards are complicated and the expectation of simplicity is as about as likely as eliminating the current tiered tax system by introducing the flat tax next year. It will never be a one-size-fits-all, neat, tidy process. It is as individual as finding the college that is the best fit. And, like choosing the college that is the best fit, it requires a partnering between students and college professionals.
I do understand where all of this criticism comes from and why advocates, public policy makers and even families might have this notion that schools are trying to trick students. As an enrollment and higher education professional, I, too, have been critical of practices that leave families confused. The process is not perfect and we can do more to serve students and families better.
There are some things colleges can — and should — do when sending out award letters to prospective students:
Provide one-on-one counseling and expand the circle of professionals able to provide counseling — The availability of one-on-one financial aid counseling should be the norm at all institutions, whether in person or on the telephone. This is an important resource to families and is one of the most important responsibilities of a financial aid office. However, accurate financial aid counseling does not need to be the exclusive responsibility of financial aid staff; in my office, admissions counselors are equally capable of providing advice.
Define terms with clarity — Financial offices should provide a list of terms used in the financial aid process and in an award letter. Giving students and their families access to financial aid language will help abate confusion and provide students the tools to better compare college choices. And resources are available online, including an excellent one from the Department of Education.
Develop a worksheet that clearly defines what a student pays to accompany the financial aid award letter — We have a “cost payment worksheet” that includes the cost of attendance and all financial assistance, along with the estimated out-of-pocket cost for a student to attend. This one-page sheet is one of the most useful tools we have at our disposal in working with families.
Develop resources and tools that allow students and families to understand your award letter — Each year before we begin awarding financial aid, we post to our website and Facebook page a webpage, which serves as tutorial on how to read an aid award letter. We also mail an extensive financial aid guide to families with our financial aid award letter. It includes in-depth information about specific awards and types of award.
Host specific hours when students and families can call in with questions about a financial laid award letter — This spring we began hosting evening hours during which students and families could call in and speak to an admissions or financial aid professional about their financial aid award letter. This turned out to be incredibly helpful and a worthwhile investment of time and effort and will help us improve our materials and messages to be even better.
The college search and selection process, which includes financial aid awards, is not a one-size-fits-all process, and it is misguided to think that it should be. However, that does not mean financial aid award letters need to be confusing or colleges are intentionally misleading students. Colleges may be businesses, but we do have a common goal to educate and graduate our students. Adopting consistent, good practices in delivering financial aid awards is essential for colleges to buck the alarming reputation as tricksters and prove that we do, in fact, have the best interest of our students at heart.
W. Kent Barnds is executive vice president and vice president, enrollment, communication and planning for Augustana College of Rock Island, Illinois.