More Isn’t Always Better: NASFAA Study Shows Students, Parents Prefer Simplicity in Financial Aid Award Notifications

Information included in award notification letters should be defined and consumer-tested, the study shows.

June 4, 2019—While making the choice to attend college is a step toward economic mobility, it’s also a significant financial investment. More than ever, students and families need to have clear and concise information about college cost to arm them with the knowledge to make a sound investment. But what students and parents want is sometimes at odds with what policymakers require and what schools provide, according to a new survey from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) and ASA Research (ASA).

NASFAA and ASA set out to consumer test the “College Financing Plan” recently released by the U.S. Department of Education, which would replace the previous “Financial Aid Shopping Sheet.” ASA conducted six focus groups at the high school and college level with a total of 66 students and parents, as well as written questionnaires testing the participants’ comprehension of key financial aid concepts and award scenarios. Here’s what we found:

  • Students and parents want financial aid offers to focus squarely on costs and financial aid to cover those costs. Additional information on student outcomes only clutter the aid offer, according to consumer testing.

  • More Attention Paid to Terms and Conditions of Loans and Work Options: Instead of outcomes data, students and families wanted more information on the terms and conditions of federal student loans, including interest rates and total cost.

  • Word Choice Matters: Part of the confusion on aid offers comes from the variation in terminology and definitions used by students, schools, federal agencies, scholarship providers, and everyone else involved in financial aid. For example, financial aid administrators both define financial aid as any money used to pay for school. However, students and parents only consider “free” money that does not need to be repaid or earned through work as financial aid. This mismatch of vernacular causes significant challenges in communication. An inclusive process that consists of schools, students, and state and federal stakeholders can help standardize terminology and overcome inherent biases.

  • Doing the Math Simplifies a Complicated Process: Students preferred having all grants and scholarships grouped together and subtotaled. The same for loans, and separately, work-study. In terms of disclosure, if they are included in a school’s financial aid award, students and parents want them subtotaled for ease of comparison.

  • Flexibility Matters, for Schools and Students: Comprehension tests between ED’s current Shopping Sheet and the proposed College Financing Plan showed a mixed bag.  Because the Shopping Sheet is so federally focused, students and parents were generally able to correctly answer questions regarding federal student aid amounts. But students were better able to answer questions regarding costs and net balances from the Financing Plan.

“If consumer testing points to anything, it’s that the most important ingredient in conveying this vital information is empathy,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger. “Schools work to put themselves in the shoes of their students. Policymakers, lawmakers and bureaucrats in DC need to put themselves in the shoes of both schools and students, and avoid the temptation to think ‘they know best.’ And in all scenarios, the best way to know what students and parents are thinking is to ask and test them, through rigorous, qualitative and quantitative consumer testing.”

To request an interview with a NASFAA spokesperson about what students and parents should take into consideration when making their college-going decisions, please email NASFAA Director of Marketing and Communications Erin Powers at [email protected] or call (202) 785-6959.


The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) is a nonprofit membership organization that represents more than 28,000 financial aid professionals at nearly 3,000 colleges, universities, and career schools across the country. NASFAA member institutions serve nine out of every ten undergraduates in the United States. Based in Washington, D.C., NASFAA is the only national association with a primary focus on student aid legislation, regulatory analysis, and training for financial aid administrators. For more information, visit

Publication Date: 6/4/2019

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