College costs: comparing apples to apples
Higher-education costs and options for paying them are critical things students should know before they go. The Obama administration's smart solution: a standard one-page college shopping sheet.
Seattle Times Editorial
COLLEGE shopping can be a frustrating exercise. Parents and students are likely to find more financial disclosure on credit-card statements than on university financial aid forms.
The Obama administration has urged universities and colleges to daylight their costs. The administration is stepping in with a standardized form breaking down tuition, fees, housing, books and other costs.
One sheet would tell students not just how much a year of college will cost, but options for paying for it. The new form would show estimated monthly payments for federal student loans and graduation rates, a key measure of determining a school's value.
Financial-aid-award letters often contain vague wording and euphemisms that blur the lines between scholarships, grants and loans.
Online charts and calculators help families chart college costs. The Expected Family Contribution and Financial Aid Calculator is one example. But the usefulness of the administration's form lies in its standardization, allowing college shoppers to make real apples-to-apples comparisons between schools.
One downside: The administration's shopping-sheet initiative is voluntary, making comparison shopping vulnerable to mixed results. Hope lies in the U.S. Senate where a mandatory financial aid disclosure requirement, SB 3244, ought to garner support.
This effort should not be a burden on higher-education institutions. Most already collect significant financial data from families and thus ought to be able to customize the information for students.
Beyond transparency, there may be another benefit to daylighting college costs: the shock value. Seeing tuition and other costs in black and white might spur Washington state lawmakers to better address dwindling state support for higher education. In-state tuition at the University of Washington is expected to top $20,000 a year before the end of the decade.