Students Weigh in on Department Tools for Higher Ed

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The U.S. Department of Education has been taking steps to provide students with more tools to help them navigate the college decision process. Now students, like those at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and those participating in a study by the Center for American Progress, are speaking up about the types of information they want and need these new tools to provide, as well as how they think the information should be made available to them, parents, and others.

The George Washington University Student Association recently passed a resolution underscoring the need for “stronger and simpler tools” to help students and their families identify the best financial-aid options available to them. One example the resolution cites and urges GWU officials to adopt is the Obama administration’s financial-aid Shopping Sheet. Introduced earlier this year, the Shopping Sheet presents financial-aid offers in a uniform format. This common formatting allows students to compare financial-aid offers from various schools more reliably. So far, though, only a few more than 500 institutions have stepped up to provide financial-aid offers through the Shopping Sheet.

Student voices also informed a new report by the Center for American Progress: Improving the College Scorecard enumerates suggestions students hope the Department of Education will consider for one of its upcoming tools, the College Scorecard. The scorecard aims to help prospective students compare statistics for various colleges and universities, including cost, graduation rate, and student loan repayment and debt information. Students will be able to access the scorecard through the education department’s new College Affordability and Transparency Center. Among other things, the CAP report recommends that the department increase the readability of the scorecard and emphasize four-year graduation rates over six-year rates. The report also suggests rigorous consumer testing of the final version of the scorecard (and any other tools) by parents and students before they are released.

In addition to heeding these recommendations, the department should ensure the new tools are designed and disseminated in ways that are accessible to all students, including those who, historically, have been poorly served by higher education. The Shopping Sheet, for example, is not currently used by all colleges and universities, so it won’t help students applying to schools that have not opted in. The College Scorecard, meanwhile, is designed as an online tool, which causes problems for students who do not have regular Internet access. Even with Internet access, some first-generation students may not know where to start in the admissions process or what information to seek and weigh in their decisions. The department must develop alternative means of ensuring these students get the guidance and support they need to make optimal use of these tools.

Disadvantaged students face myriad hurdles during the college admissions process — high costs and substandard preparation, to name two. Impediments to obtaining clear information to inform their decisions should not be another.

Considering that the average high school counselor is assigned to 459 students these days, new tools designed to ease the college decision-making process are welcome. But colleges, universities, and the Department of Education must work harder to ensure these tools are available and helpful to all students.

— Nicole Tortoriello