The cost of college is one of the main things students consider when deciding whether and where to enroll. So it makes sense that students, once admitted, would rely so much on the letters from colleges that tell them how much the institution can chip in. The problem is: Those letters, called financial-aid award letters, are often confusing and vary wildly from college to college.
A new report from uAspire, a college-affordability advocacy organization, and New America, a left-leaning think tank, examined more than 11,000 of such letters from uAspire’s work with students. What they found was inconsistency. Several of the letters didn’t even use the word “loan” when referring to an unsubsidized loan, a type of loan that accrues interest while students are in school. Other letters did not include information about how much it actually costs to go to the institution, which is vital context for students trying to figure out, for instance, how far a Pell grant (a federal grant for low-income students) will go. And half of the letters did not explain what a student had to do to accept or decline the aid that was offered.
To be sure, “aid” is a fickle word, and can mean different things under different circumstances. Grants are money that does not have to be paid back, whereas loans do, and on top of that there’s work-study, another term that is not self-explanatory, and which some letters don’t explain. And if that still does not cover the costs—the report found that Pell-grant recipients typically were left to pay an average of $12,000 in unpaid costs, that they may or may not be able to cover with subsidized or unsubsidized loans on their own—if not, parents can take out a PLUS loan (a federal loan for graduate students, professional students, and parents of dependent undergraduate students that covers the cost of attendance minus other aid) to cover the remaining balance. If that seems complicated, that’s because it is.