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In the series debut, we take a look at what a sample financial aid award letter may be missing – and why that would not comply with NASFAA’s Code of Conduct.
In conversations with students and parents, financial aid administrator John tries to be as transparent as possible about how much college will truly cost, and what aid they can use to help. He is adept at delineating the differences between self-help and gift aid, and is confident that prospective students leave his office with a greater understanding of financial aid.
The college’s financial aid award letter is not quite as clear, however. The terms make sense to practiced aid professionals, but some less-informed recipients aren’t able to differentiate between grants and loans. Recipients may be confused by some terminology, such as direct and indirect costs and, as a result, may not realize that they will not be billed for indirect costs. They could possibly avoid a suggested loan by reducing indirect costs over which they have some control.
John wants to revise the school’s award letter by grouping offered aid under clear headings for “Grants you do not have to repay” and “Loans you must repay after you leave school.” The institution’s administration doesn’t mind emphasizing gift aid, but fears that emphasizing the repayment aspect of loans will scare prospective students away. They also don’t understand John’s assertion that “direct” and “indirect” costs are confusing.
We asked three NASFAA members to weigh in on why this ethical issue is important to address, and how they would handle it in their offices.
Lisa Hopper, director of financial aid, National Park Community College: “The college’s award letter does not clearly delineate the different types of aid and explain what the terms used in the award letter mean in a standardized way. Our office would (and has in recent years) modify our award letter to use the standard terminology and definitions using NASFAA’s glossary of award letter terms. We would modify the award letter to use the terms gift aid, self-help and loans in separate sections of the letter.
The terminology surrounding direct and indirect costs is slightly more nebulous but, with the use of these standard terms, links can be provided within the award letter that further describe the precise costs that would be considered direct and indirect at each institution. This would allow the students to have further explanation about what is directly billed to the student by the institution and those that might be a choice by the student. Links could also be provided within the award letter in the area of loans to direct the student to the studentloans.gov website or wherever the institution chooses to further explain that loans must be repaid after the student graduates from the institution. Institutions must be forthcoming and transparent about the responsibilities that come with student loans. Students should have full knowledge, even if this invokes a healthy 'fear' about taking on too much loan debt, prior to signing any loan documents.”
Mary Sommers, director of financial aid, University of Nebraska – Kearney: “The ability for our students to be able to understand financial aid award notices is absolutely essential. Despite limitations built into our student information systems and shortages in programming resources, clarity and transparency are vital to our institution’s success.
If I were in the position of the aid director in the case study, the first thing I would do is use NASFAA’s Statement of Ethical Principles as ‘cover.’ I would explain that as a NASFAA member institution we are expected to ‘strive for transparency and clarity.’ This includes our stated principle of ‘educating students and families through quality information that is consumer-tested when possible,’ which includes transparency and full disclosure on award notices.
I would propose bringing in a group of current students and asking them to navigate our current award notice and to ask them what they understand and what they find confusing. I would use the survey tool found in the appendix of NASFAA’s award letter test report as a good template to get student feedback. I would include other university administrators who have concerns about my plans to revise the award notice in the observation of the focus group. My hope would be that feedback directly from students would reinforce my position. Including those colleagues who have expressed concern is a way to build understanding and hopefully consensus."
Ron Day, director of financial aid, Kennesaw State University: “Often financial aid award letters are created as seen through the eyes of experienced aid administrators. The routine and familiar ‘language’ and financial aid vernacular is utilized by professional aid staff members. While the use of acronyms, complex phrasing, and words that carry multiple meanings seems to be clearly and adequately stated, it may in actuality be seen as ‘Greek’ to those outside the financial aid profession.
It is important to provide information in a clear and succinct fashion. John should allow students to review the letter prior to distribution and provide feedback regarding clarity and suggestions. This will provide an opportunity for the customer to ask specific questions that can be addressed in a more effective and concise letter. Direct and indirect cost elements, although a more realistic picture of a potential budget, are confusing when simply listed as part of the standard Cost of Attendance (COA). John should seek to provide a very detailed description of actual institutional expenses and those cost elements that students will incur outside of the standard official charges.
If the administration of the school pushes back on providing very detailed and succinct information to students regarding actual and potential charges, it is important that John explain the importance of being transparent and forthcoming and utilize NASFAA’s published code of conduct as backup. Parents and students should know actual and potential expenses. This will enable them to adequately select the correct award package and the correct institution. Providing this information will assist in a more well-versed and knowledgeable student.”
To “Strive for transparency and clarity” is a key tenet in NASFAA’s Statement of Ethical Principles. Aspirational goals include to:
It’s clear that financial aid administrators’ ethical principles aim to inform prospective students first - rather than surprise enrolled (and possibly indebted) students later.
NASFAA’s Code of Conduct is even clearer on transparency standards.
“Institutional award notifications and/or other institutionally provided materials shall include the following:
Put simply, institutions that send award letters without the above components either directly on the notification or in accompanying materials are not compliant with NASFAA’s Code of Conduct.
The organization has published numerous resources to help financial aid administrators stay in compliance with transparent financial aid materials. The Glossary of Terms for Award Notifications contains common-sense terminology that should be included in each award letter. The AskRegs Knowledgebase has ready answers to many questions about financial aid awards, and NASFAA’s training experts continually accept new queries. What’s more, Today’s News articles can help to illuminate the knowledge gap between aid administrators and the students and parents they serve.
Under NASFAA’s new Code of Conduct Enforcement Procedures, anyone can also inquire about their compliance, without penalty. An ethics-related inquiry is a means for determining whether a policy, program, activity, behavior, or conduct contravenes the Code, for requesting guidance regarding a proposed endeavor, or for requesting assistance from the NASFAA Ethics Commission, without resorting to enforcement proceedings.
So, what happened at John’s institution? Emboldened by the NASFAA Code of Conduct, John convinces his boss to conduct a short survey testing students' understanding of “direct” and “indirect” costs and the fact that indirect costs can, to some extent, be controlled by the student and his or her family. The results clearly show that more explanation of these terms and their implications is necessary. John also convinces the school’s administration that providing debt management strategies and information about loan forgiveness upfront is preferable to resentment students may feel later on about being mislead.
John follows up with a sample of students after making these changes and survey results indicate that the award letter is demonstrably improved with students feeling more informed about their financial aid options.
Publication Date: 10/29/2014