Higher Ed

OPINION: Understanding college admissions letters is hard enough, but what if English isn’t your first language?

Recognizing — and meeting — the needs of multilingual students and families

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How do you say “subsidized loan” in Spanish? 

Or in Tagalog? Or in German? 

Every year, students across the United States open their financial-aid letters from the colleges to which they have worked hard to be admitted. The letters are there to tell students, and their parents or guardians, how much money they are being offered to help pay for their college journey — and how much they have to pay themselves. It seems like a pretty straightforward concept to understand. 

It’s not.

Related: The Hechinger Report’s OfferLetter Decoder

Instead, the process becomes a translation battle. “Subsidized loans,” “unsubsidized loans,” “Stafford loans,” “tuition waiver,” “cash grant,” “fee grant,” acronyms. With the hundreds of ways that institutions can choose to spell out basic financial terms, students struggle to decode the jargon in the letters they receive. Even higher-education experts can’t figure them out.

Deciphering these letters is complex enough for people who speak English, but for the 60 million students and families who speak a language other than English at home, the process can be nightmarish.

“A few times I was brought to tears because of frustration,” recalls Sonia, a junior at California State University, Chico. Neither one of her parents is fluent in English, and although she is bilingual, translating her financial-aid letter was hard. “If I were to translate the information directly, let’s say through Google Translate or my own knowledge, it would still be difficult for them [to understand] because of the elevated words.” Both of her parents only finished elementary school in their home country.

Understanding how much and what kind of money a student receives for college is an essential part of his or her decision-making process. A wrong move could have dire financial consequences, including defaulting on student loans or dropping out of college. And although there are federal legislative efforts to standardize financial-aid letters to make them less confusing overall, there is little acknowledgment of how this may affect students and families whose primary language is not English.

Related: Confusing college financial-aid letters leave students, parents adrift

That’s not a hypothetical financial concern for just a handful of people. About 1 in 5 U.S. residents speaks a language other than English at home. So what are students supposed to do when they and their parents or support circle excel in another language but struggle in English?

I am Google-translating a lot of words, for sure, but even then they [parents] don’t really understand what that [the terms] means,” says Yesenia Capellino, a counselor at Para Los Niños, a nonprofit in Los Angeles that supports first-generation, low-income students. She attempts to explain the differences among private, subsidized, unsubsidized and Perkins loans to parents in Spanish, which helps students who struggle to do the same. While parents seem to get the gist of what she tells them, “I don’t think they fully understand the details,” Capellino says.

Congress can and must make a difference on this issue. In addition to proposed changes in research and an existing bill, there is a glossary available through the Office of Federal Student Aid that explains financial-aid terms, but only in English. These efforts, though commendable, fall short of meeting the reality of our nation’s increasingly diverse student population.

The U.S. Department of Education should expand its English-only glossary to include multiple languages for the standardized terms found in financial-aid letters (contingent, of course, on federal legislation requiring the use of standardized terms). At the institutional level, colleges and universities can offer an option to receive financial-aid letters in the language a student is most comfortable with. Training multilingual financial-aid officers and/or counselors is another potential solution. As the U.S. student body continues to diversify, it is imperative that the needs of multilingual students and families are recognized and met.

Sonia, having progressed in her education, realizes that her frustrations were directed at the wrong people. “Now I understand that it wasn’t that my parents didn’t trust me, but instead that the system was all in English and too complex for me to break down for my parents.”

The solution is simple, really: We must offer resources for students and their families to understand their financial-aid letters in languages they can understand with confidence.

This story about reforming financial-aid letters was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Alejandra Acosta is a policy analyst with the higher education initiative at New America.

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Alejandra Acosta

Alejandra Acosta is a policy analyst with the higher education initiative at New America. See Archive

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