The costs of higher education have attained unprecedented levels of scrutiny.
It's difficult to find anyone who disagrees with the above statement - and likely will be just as difficult this time next year - and therein lies a huge part of America's student debt problem. The truth is that the costs of higher education, particularly the real costs for students, remain largely unscrutinized. Rather, focus lies heavily on the price, and this represents a failure on the behalf of institutions, admission and financial aid offices to clearly and effectively convey the actual cost of investing in a post-secondary degree.
Prospective students and their families cringe when they see $40,000, $50,000 and even $60,000 price tags on the cost of one year of college education. There's often a lack of clarity over what these sums encompass, and individuals and families are left to guess how much of the total cost of attendance they will be required to pay. Moreover, when it comes to assessing cost and aid prior to receiving a financial aid package, families that have not traversed the college admission process before often do not know what questions or to whom to ask.
Financial aid is not a scholarship. Few institutions award those who apply for aid money (grants) to help them afford their educations. Rather, financial aid is a line of credit. The majority of institutions award students applying for aid with the opportunity to take out loans to pay for their educations. Many students take them up on the offer without realizing the full consequences of doing so. And now, many students are crumbling under the pressure of repaying those loans.
As much attention as has been given to promoting access and affordability in higher education, I fear too little of our marketing and outreach efforts has been devoted to creating transparency between the price and cost of acquiring a post-secondary degree. Encouraging more students to apply for financial aid and generating more funding for aid programs are vital endeavors, but so too should be raising the level of awareness over what financial aid means and how much a college education truly costs.
It's time for admission and financial aid officers and higher education professionals to engage in meaningful discourse with prospective students and families over the financial realities of attending our institutions. Disseminating information related to annual costs of attendance and institutional financial aid policies is no longer sufficient. We need to speak in real terms - the percentage of our students who apply for aid versus the percentage who receive aid; the percentage of students who take out loans to afford their educations; and the average debt with which a student graduates. Most importantly, we need to be able to convey what that debt translates to in terms of monthly payments and total repayment.
Our end goals should be to provide better information related to college costs so students and families can make better, more informed decisions, and to encourage more students who perceive a college education as an unaffordable expense to apply as a result of better, more informed counsel. Yes, the system we have is flawed in that it delays information related to financial aid until after students have applied to a school, and often until after admission decisions are made. But that should not prevent us from seeking better ways to communicate information related to costs and affordability.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, 60% of students attending American colleges and universities take out loans, graduating with an average of $25,000 of debt. That may or may not sound daunting, but $25K grows to a much larger figure very quickly when factoring for interest. This is a part of the financial aid process that too few students understand upon entering into an agreement to borrow money to fund their educations.
Pioneering professionals in the field of college admission had the courage to speak openly and honestly about their institutions' admission processes, and initiate conversations previously considered taboo. Again, the time to broaden these conversations and extend the lens of transparency is upon us. Need-blind is a viable, albeit debatable, financial aid policy. However, need-blind is not a justification for being need-dumb. Financial aid is a vital piece to our knowledge base as admission officers and counselors, and it should be a larger, better-defined topic in our communications with prospective students.