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Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance

It seems like such a simple concept: a calculator on a school’s website that enables prospective students to determine how much it would cost them to attend a specific college; the true total cost, all tuition and fees, books and board, minus financial aid – merit- or need-based – and other scholarships.  Under the Higher Education Opportunities Act of 2008, such a calculator must be included on almost every college’s website by October of this year.

But the exact calculations that must be built into the website are still a fundamental question, which this federal advisory committee addresses in this new report.  At least one school – testing its own model – found the calculator was off by at least $5,000 more than 50 percent of the time. Other schools have simply adapted a template suggested by the U.S. Department of Education, without any online testing.

But this report goes further than the problems with the online calculator to the actual financial aid letters that go out to students and how they aren’t uniform, use terms differently (self-help aid in some means federal work-study programs and in others can mean the need to acquire loans) and often don’t clearly spell out the actual gap between the overall cost of attending the school and the amount that will be covered by some type of student aid.

Free, 85 pages. Click here to report the complete report.