In the Media
Confusion Still Reigns Over Student Aid. Here’s Why.
December 10, 2019
By Goldie Blumenstyk
Confusion still reigns over student aid.
Congress has just approved some changes to simplify how students apply for federal student aid. OK, great. But hold the applause.
Even as the process of applying for federal student aid may be getting improved thanks to bipartisan legislation, the way that financial aid gets described to students once it is awarded is still pretty much a hot mess.
The confusion reigns over student aid even though the U.S. Department of Education has produced a new model aid-award form called the College Financing Plan. It was designed as a template for colleges to use to make financial aid and college costs clearer. But recent consumer testing shows that the form may not be up to the task: Four out of five students surveyed were confused by at least one bit of language or a number on a beta version of this new College Financing Plan, and the same was true for three out of four parents.
In some instances, the confusion was highest among students and parents most reliant on it. For example, the lowest-income students and parents surveyed were among the most confused by the section of the form describing loans.
The survey, which included 1,000 students and 750 parents, was commissioned by a company called CampusLogic, which provides financial-aid services to colleges. You can check out the whole survey here.
Two parts of the template that students and parents found most confusing in a test version of the College Financing Plan were eliminated in the final version to be used for 2020-21 aid awards. Still, Carlo Salerno, the vice president for research at CampusLogic, says the survey shows “there are challenges with this letter that really need to be resolved.” For one, he told me, the survey findings suggest that “one-size-fits-all letters might not really work because people get confused in different ways.”
But there’s a broader tension at work. As student-advocacy groups like uAspire have argued, the more colleges customize their aid-award letters, the harder it is for families and students to compare their options. It’s one reason uAspire advocates for standardized terminology and definitions in financial-aid awards, but, and as Laura Keane, its chief policy officer, told me, “not necessarily one singular form.”
uAspire has its own checklist of things that it wants to see in every aid-award letter; among them, a summary of “net cost” of attending based on a common definition that includes the “all-in” costs of attending college, including books and transportation. I still can’t get over that in its 2018 analysis of 500-plus actual aid-award letters, it found that one-third of colleges left that out.
Honestly, I’m also surprised that confusion levels about the College Financing Plan indicated in the CampusLogic survey weren’t even higher. Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, says whatever confusion the document engenders probably isn’t necessarily all the fault of the form. Some of the confusion, he said, simply reflects “how complicated the system is.”
If anything, Draeger told me, his members believe the College Financing Plan is at least “a step up from the Shopping Sheet,” which was the first version of this effort at a uniform award letter, initiated under the Obama administration. “I’m just not sure we will ever come up with a one-pager” that can cover all the complexities,” Draeger said.
So is the College Financing Plan an improvement? Maybe. But just a little. The field is “inching” forward, Draeger said, but “there’s a ways to go.” And it could actually get even more confusing if colleges decide to use the template but then send their own explanatory letters as well. Keane, too, sees progress, especially as Congress continues to pay heed to the in the issue, but she’s quick to add, “There’s more to do.”
Back in the halls of Congress, lawmakers in both the House of Representatives and the Senate on Tuesday approved bipartisan legislation that aims to simplify the FAFSA-application process by eliminating 20-plus questions on the form and letting that information come directly from applicants’ tax records instead. The measure also makes permanent $255 million in annual funding for historically black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions. President Trump is expected to sign it.
The measures in this legislation are just a slice of the overall changes that advocates are seeking to simplify the application process — changes that aren’t likely to be enacted until Congress takes up a broader reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. The timing for that is anyone’s guess. I don’t expect that before the 2020 election, and I’m so convinced of that, I’ve got a beer bet with a D.C. wonk riding on that assumption. Disagree? I’m open to yours, too. But frankly, I’d be happier paying for a round if it meant the continuing confusion over aid awards would be cleared up sooner.
Reaction to the idea of embedding certifications in bachelor’s degrees.
Last week’s newsletter, on why isn’t it a no-brainer to embed certifications into bachelor’s degrees, really seemed to have struck a chord — especially the question of whether the idea is adaptable to students majoring in liberal arts. I’m grateful for all the insights shared to my Twitter feed and inbox. Two of those responses seemed to span the range of sentiments.
Jerise Fogel, an adjunct assistant professor of classics and general humanities at Montclair State University, wrote to say that while she could see some “upsides” to embedding certifications, she also worried about the added pressures of such an approach, especially for the many students already working full- or part-time while going to school.
“My students already struggle with stress,” she wrote, “and tend to treat their academic work, which is corralled into small workbytes for them by their intense schedules, not as a life-enriching, mind-broadening, enjoyable, and interesting plunge into the moral and intellectual worlds of past and present, but as a time drain and something they ‘get done’ and check off their credit-requirements list.”
Fogel said that she understands the demands that put students in these positions: “Work requirements already undermine their ability to find peace and quiet to read and think,” she wrote. Add requirements for embedded certifications on top of that, Fogel said, and she’d “expect to see students' abilities to read history and literature — and more importantly to write about and think about themselves as serious people with academically grounded and informed moral and political opinions and thoughts — to become even more unattainable.”
On a more practical front, Fogel also suggested that groups like Workcred and other "certification" proposers find ways to cover the costs of students’ test-taking for certifications, “without relying on our overtaxed university system to do it.”
Mike Simmons, the assistant vice president for academic affairs, curricular innovation, and academic partnerships at the University of North Texas, wrote to ensure that I (and now all of you) understood that some of the perceived reluctance on the part of university folks from the liberal arts wasn’t simply obstinance — but a real “problem of translation.”
The organization Workcred has been exploring with higher-ed groups the idea of embedding certifications into bachelor’s degrees. Simmons took part in a Workcred-organized meeting that matched folks from certification bodies and the liberal arts. In one case, he noted, the certification discussed required one year of on-the-job work experience “and a number of activities which could only be accomplished by a niche degree that many institutions don't even have.”
His point: “For every instance of our curriculum being out of touch with the 'real world' I can identify equally problematic challenges with industry and organizational certifications which do not accurately determine, teach, and assess the learning outcomes they profess, and don't have any more evidence of efficacy at the end of their process than do we at the university.”
Simmons is on board, and says many other colleges are too. But “the challenge of relating the liberal arts to workplace and industry certifications requires movement toward a common middle by all involved stakeholders,” he wrote. “All of us R1, public institutions are grappling with this. Some better than others. But it's not lost upon us, I assure you.”
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