300-Plus Colleges Commit to Financial Aid Transparency for Students

More than 360 colleges and universities across the country vowed to boost transparency in financial aid offers for students, including providing the total cost of attendance and price breakdown.
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Published on September 29, 2023
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  • More than 360 colleges and universities committed to transparency standards for financial aid offers.
  • The College Cost Transparency Initiative's standards include both total cost of attendance and an estimated net price for students after grants and scholarships.
  • A government watchdog warned last year that only 9% of institutions it examined had accurately told students an estimated net price of attendance in their financial aid offers.
  • Colleges that have committed to the transparency standards include major university systems, like the State University of New York and the University of California.

Hundreds of colleges and universities committed Sept. 25 to transparency standards for students' financial aid offers — a move officials said would help students make better-informed decisions about where they go to school.

A government watchdog organization warned last year that many colleges obscure the true cost of attending their institution. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) told lawmakers last year that a mere 9% of the institutions it examined accurately told students an estimated net price of attendance in their financial aid offers.

Now, a nationwide group of colleges and universities — including major systems like the State University of New York (SUNY), City University of New York (CUNY), and the University of California — have committed to a set of standards to ensure transparency for students.

The College Cost Transparency Initiative, a task force composed of a broad coalition of higher education associations, announced Sept. 25 that more than 360 colleges and universities committed to a set of principles and standards for transparency, clarity, accessibility, and the use of plain language in student financial aid offers.

Those standards include calls for clear, unambiguous language and displaying the following components on every financial aid offer:

  • An estimate of a student's total cost of attendance, including a breakdown of costs paid to the college and others
  • The type and source of financial aid being offered, broken down into grants and scholarships that don't need to be repaid, student loans that need to be repaid, and student employment or work
  • An estimated net price created by subtracting the grants and scholarships from the cost of attendance
  • Information about whether financial aid is being offered once or on an ongoing basis and what requirements would need to be met for financial aid renewal

Colleges will also need to include information about employment requirements if student employment is offered, how much student debt may cost over time if federal loans are included, and "actionable next steps for students to accept or decline their financial aid."

"The cost of college is prohibitive for many low-income and middle-class students and their families," Amy Dittmar, the Howard R. Hughes provost at Rice University, said in a press release from the school. "Affordability and transparency in pricing are important aspects of expanding access to a Rice education."

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona praised the colleges' commitment to transparency standards in a National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) press release.

"Students and families need transparency, consistency, and clarity when colleges and universities communicate their student financial aid offers so that they are able to make informed decisions about enrolling in and affording higher education. Unfortunately, financial aid offers are often confusing and, in some cases, misleading," Cardona said.

"I welcome efforts like the College Cost Transparency Initiative's Principles and Standards that provide clarity when communicating these offers."

Student advocacy groups pushed Congress to pass measures around financial aid cost transparency after the GAO report last year. And although lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pressed for the passage of measures like the Understanding the True Cost of College Act, no measure has passed so far.

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, called the College Cost Transparency Initiative "a big step in the right direction" in the NASFAA release.

Foxx earlier this year reintroduced her own bill, the College Cost Transparency and Student Protection Act, which would require institutions to list both direct costs, like tuition and fees, and indirect costs, like housing and books, in their financial aid offers.

"In Congress, the Education and the Workforce Committee is working to lower college costs and improve the information available to students and families with legislation like the Cost Transparency and Student Protection Act," Foxx said in the release.

"Getting the federal student loan program in check requires action from both lawmakers and postsecondary education institutions, and I'm glad to see we're working together towards the same goal of greater transparency."