ED Under Secretary Praises Financial Aid Administrators, Asks for Help to Do More

Department of Education Under Secretary Martha Kanter praised the work financial aid administrators do to help graduate low-income students at NASFAA's award lunch yesterday. 

"I'm in the company of people that change students’ lives every single day," Kanter said. "Students have literally transformed their lives because of the financial aid you give them, whether it's a Pell Grant, whether it's a scholarship, whether it's state aid. Most importantly, this is about changing the trajectory of our country, so what you do everyday matters."

Kanter also urged NASFAA Conference attendees to do more to help improve financial literacy and transparency to help meet the Department's goal to increase the number of college graduates.

More needs to be done, Kanter said, not only to improve graduation rates but to improve students' understanding of financial responsibility and college costs.

"I really call it a national security and national prosperity and also a moral imperative," she said.

Kanter's speech came on the heels of the Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's release of the revised and final version of the financial aid Shopping Sheet. The sample award letter is part of their efforts to make information about the cost of college and financial aid packages more transparent and comparable for students and parents.

ED Secretary Arne Duncan will send a letter to college and university presidents asking for voluntary adoption of the shopping sheet.

"It's a complicated message and we need your help," Kanter said. "It's a work in progress. We need to standardize information for students and families on the financial literacy side."

Policies for Undocumented Students

NASFAA Director of Research Gigi Jones moderated an interest session on a 12-month study done by the National Forum on Higher Education for the Public Good, a team of doctoral students at the University of Michigan, which shows how states, colleges and universities make decisions regarding undocumented students. 

One of the prominent findings showed that among the NASFAA members surveyed in the student, awareness of NASFAA’s support of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented students, doubled the likelihood of a school’s policies being inclusive of undocumented students. The finding sheds light on the influence that associations can have on policy issues at the institution level.

The survey also evaluated institutional policies and practices in contrast with state policies, which are either inclusive of undocumented students, exclusive or have not stated policy. Experts noted that while financial aid administrators in inclusive and exclusive states are subject to those respective mandates, institutions within states without a stated policy on the matter have a level of flexibility to aid undocumented students, so long as they operate within the confines of the federal and state laws and regulations.

Session attendees also shared best practices and advise on the treatment of undocumented students, including ways to help, either through a private donor or institutional aid. More information about the study, including a list of institutional practices, is available online.

Shedding Light on the True Cost of College

Although much public attention is focused on rising college tuitions, most students do not pay the full “sticker price.” To cast light on what students actually pay, after grant aid, colleges are now required to report data on “net price” to the U.S. Department of Education and provide net price calculators on their websites for prospective students.

In this interest session, research conducted by Education Trust and the Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) shows that some calculators do not meet all ED requirements and contain too many inconsistencies between institutions, limiting the comparability of college costs. Some bury the net price or contain too many questions, while others do not appear prominently on college websites.

Session attendees expressed concern at the framing of the calculators, noting that some students are treating it not as a planning tool, but as an actual predictor of their grant aid, college costs and expenses. Other expressed frustration at the notion that merit aid is too difficult to measure.

While acknowledging these concerns, Research Analyst Diane Cheng noted that even thought cost estimates are not intended to be entirely accurate, one primary benefit is the financial literacy component that comes with using the tool. Students and their families are able to learn a little bit more about the difference between loans and grants and likely gain a better understanding of the complexity of college financing.