Are your school’s hidden costs spooking students? Here’s how to tell it to them straight

Taking the higher education landscape by storm right now is the College Cost Transparency Initiative (CTI), which officially launched last week and has already amassed over 400 institutions as members. 

The college application process time can be a nerve-wracking time for college hopefuls. However, their chief driver of stress has changed in the past two decades as students nowadays are more preoccupied with the cost of college rather than being denied their first-choice college.

But what bugs students about college costs isn’t just that it’s expensive; it’s because they rarely understand by how much. Nine out of 10 colleges either exclude or understate their net cost of attendance in student financial aid offers, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), a government watchdog organization. With so many colleges hiding behind smoke and mirrors, it deepens the public perception that the cost of higher education outweighs the degree, despite the fact that the net price for private colleges has fallen by 11% in five years once adjusted for inflation.

“You see these headlines of college prices skyrocketing, that sort of thing, you know, it sends a message to low-income families that college is unaffordable,” said Jill Desjean, senior policy analyst for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, according to The Hill.

With how significantly students today regard colleges’ costs and scholarship packages when making their enrollment decision, it may prove wise to take a more transparent approach to student costs. Here are three ways to do so.

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The College Transparency Initiative

Taking the higher education landscape by storm right now is the College Cost Transparency Initiative (CTI), which officially launched last week and has already amassed over 400 institutions as members.

CTI commits its member institutions to share the same principles when informing students about their college costs. For example, all members must prominently display their net price, and institutions must all share the same definition of what net price is—the amount of money a student would pay after grants and scholarships.

“We wanted to maintain some flexibility, but also educate around the idea that standardization was needed for specific elements so that students and families could all be working with the same terminology. And schools got that,” said National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) President Justin Draeger, according to The Washington Post.

Like NASFAA, some of the nation’s most prestigious higher education nonprofits helped create this framework, including the American Council on Education (ACE) and the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). State systems such as State University of New York (SUNY) and the University of California have already adopted the framework. Other elite institutions to have joined include the University of Southern California and Rice University.

Embrace the tuition reset

For private colleges, the sector is precipitously beginning to look at tuition resets as a means to show first-generation and lower-income students who either are unfamiliar with the college process or believe they can’t afford a degree that their institution is a healthy choice.

Schools like Houghton University (N.Y.), Washington & Jefferson (Pa.), Colby-Sawyer (N.H.) and now most recently Bridgewater College (Va.) have all adopted it.

“When people say that higher education isn’t worth it, that a college degree isn’t worth it anymore, that’s a problem,” said David Bushman, president of Bridgewater. “That’s a problem for our democracy, that’s a problem for our economy. So I think bringing some transparency back lets [us] reevaluate the real value of higher education.”

However, Bushman believes tuition resets are not a one-size-fits-all approach and are a highly contextual strategic choice. In Bridgewater’s case, their main competition comes from other public universities in the Shenandoah Valley, with an edge on the competition for their reputation as a low-cost alternative to private schools. Bushman believes Bridgewater’s tuition reset can help change the narrative about the value of a private college.

Follow this accountability list

Colleges and universities don’t need to join a membership or dramatically change their price tag to quell student anxiety over costs. Rather, they can moderate themselves with GAO’s best practices for institutions communicating costs with students.

  1. Itemize key direct and indirect costs
  2. Provide a total cost of attendance that includes key costs
  3. Estimate the net price (by subtracting only gift aid from key costs)
  4. Separate gift aid, loans, and work-study
  5. Do not include a parent PLUS Loan or, if included, separate and differentiate it from student loans
  6. Label type of aid
  7. Label source of aid
  8. Include actionable next steps
  9. Highlight key details and distinctions about loans, grants, and work-study
  10. Do not refer to the offer as an “award”

GAO cautions institutions against the common practice of referring to financial offers that include loans as an “award” because it can confuse students about how much they will have to repay.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and first-generation journalism graduate from the University of Florida. His beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador and Brazil.

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