ASU deciding whether to use financial aid 'shopping sheet'
by Kellen Moore
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan also published an open letter urging college and university presidents to adopt the new initiative for their financial aid awards starting in the 2013-14 school year.
"Countless students I meet across the country feel like the first time they really understood how much student loan debt they were in was when the first bill arrived," Duncan said.
"The lack of transparency historically made that virtually impossible for a younger person or a family to make an informed choice," Duncan said.
At Appalachian State University, discussions are beginning now on whether the new, optional format would be the most effective method for conveying important financial aid information, said Lori Townsend, senior associate director of financial aid.
"We're certainly going to make the best decision for our students, to get the most clear, best information to them about what it's going to cost for them to come to Appalachian, how they need to apply for financial aid and what we can offer," she said.
The shopping sheet is a one-page form that includes a personalized breakdown of tuition and fees, housing and other expenses for the accepted student.
Another section outlines the grants and scholarships the student is being offered to compute the net cost for that year.
Separate boxes outline work-study options, federal loans and other ways students may be able to cover those net costs.
The sheet also includes six-year graduation rates, loan default rates and median borrowing figures for students at that particular university.
An example form is available online at WataugaDemocrat.com.
While colleges and universities already present much of that information to accepted students, the premise of the shopping sheet is to allow more direct, "apples-to-apples" comparisons, Duncan said.
The shopping sheet was developed in conjunction with college and university presidents and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a relatively new government agency formed to monitor and regulate financial products and services.
Bureau Director Richard Cordray said in a conference call Monday that student debt is Americans' biggest source of debt outside of mortgages.
According to the bureau's estimates, outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. topped $1 trillion last year, he said.
"We have heard from so many student loan borrowers who say that they simply did not understand what they signed up for," Cordray said.
At Appalachian State, 67 percent of the student body receives some sort of financial aid, whether in grants, loans, scholarships or a combination, Townsend said.
Undergraduate students at ASU borrow, on average, $17,555 from federal, state, institutional or other loan sources, according to the ASU Office of Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning.
Most colleges, including ASU, will be required to use the shopping sheet for incoming students who are veterans. But whether ASU will employ it for other populations remains to be seen.
Townsend said the financial aid staff was pleased to see a section on the shopping sheet that would allow for customized information the school might want to add.
Townsend said the university is awaiting information from its software vendor about whether it might be able to offer an automated version of the form. Financial aid staff also will have to discuss with the vice chancellor's office how to proceed.
At least 10 major undergraduate schools representing about 1.5 million students have already pledged to use the shopping sheet, including UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. A&T.
Others have hesitated to use the shopping sheet, saying that it demonstrates cost but cannot help students determine the value of one school over another.
Others have argued that the form will be ineffective because it is not mandatory.
Duncan insinuated Monday that colleges and universities that do not accept the shopping sheet are not being forthright with students and parents.
"College students are pretty savvy these days," Townsend said. "I think if you're going to get that feeling about a university, then you're going to get that feeling earlier than the bill payment."