College ‘Shopping Sheets’ Increase Cost Transparency

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With college affordability weighing heavily on the minds of many American families, information on the real cost of sending kids to college is a must. This week, officials representing 10 colleges, universities, and state systems, representing 1.4 million students, met with Vice President Biden and committed to greater transparency about the real cost of attendance and student outcomes. Although tackling the affordability issue will require more and broader effort, this initial step would simplify comparison among institutions.

This new, clearer information, which will be available beginning in the 2013-14 school year, is intended to help students and their families know what kind of financial obligation they would take on when enrolling in one of the participating schools. Importantly, students would get the lowdown on estimated future loan payments, graduation rates, and default rates on student loans. Specifically, the colleges have volunteered to provide information on:

  • the cost of one year of college
  • financial-aid options to pay that cost, with differentiation between gift aid — like grants and scholarships — and loans, which have to be repaid
  • net costs after grants and scholarships are reckoned
  • estimated monthly payment on federal student loans likely owed after graduation, and
  • retention, graduation, and default rates.

In addition to the shopping sheets, other tools can help students navigate the maze of selecting a school and deciding how to pay for it. Ed Trust’s College Results Online lets readers compare graduation rates by race or ethnicity and gender at almost any four-year college or university in the country. And, for the first time, the College Board has released the Repository of Resources for Undocumented Students, which provides information on college admission, financial aid, scholarships, and support groups for students in states that permit undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.

Again, this kind of increased transparency, while a good thing, is not the whole answer to the question of college affordability. The responsibility for managing the cost of college has to be shared by institutions of higher learning, society, and individuals alike. The issue has broader implications than just helping students and their families avoid obscene debt burdens. If the country is to reach the goal of increasing the number of college graduates, higher education has to be more attainable for more people.

—Anneliese M. Bruner