UI adapts to new financial aid shopping sheet


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Financial-aid award notifications are receiving makeovers at several schools across the country.

More than 500 colleges and universities across the country — including Iowa’s three Board of Regents’ universities — are adopting the U.S. Department of Education’s financial-aid sheet for the 2013-14 academic year. 

At some schools, the sheet will replace the former financial-aid award notification, while others will add it to the school’s own notification. For most schools, the biggest change will be a net-cost box, which explicitly states what the cost of attendance is for each individual student once grants and scholarships are subtracted. Payment options including student loans, work-study, and parent loans are then presented at the bottom.

Not all colleges are on board with the new shopping sheet because of the net-cost box. They are concerned if students don’t qualify for grants or scholarships and the net costs match the estimated price of attendance, they may be scared way from attending the school.

However, one expert says students have the right to know what their cost will be and to decide if they can afford it.

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid and FastWeb websites, said he thinks the shopping sheet will prove to be a great tool for students and families deciding where to attend college. In regards to the concerns over the net cost included on the sheet, he said it is something students need to know.

“It may scare some families away, rightfully so,” he said.

Kantrowitz said the variety of financial-aid award notifications out there right now are often misleading to students by not separating grants and scholarships from loans on the sheet or failing to label the loans correctly.

“They try to make the college look more affordable than it really is,” he said. “I think the families really need to understand what the college is really going to cost them and how much debt they can really afford to take on.”

Mark Warner, the director of the University of Iowa Student Financial Aid, said the UI will adopt the sheet and replace the old sheet with it. While using it for the whole student body remains optional, he said, the federal government is requiring all principles of excellence schools for service members to adopt it. UI officials found it easier to adopt it for all students rather than having two different award notifications, Warner said.

“One of the reasons the shopping sheet wasn’t that big of deal to us is we already provide 90 percent of what is expected,” he said.

The biggest differences for the UI are the net-cost box and the order of the other information. The sheet should help students make more informed decisions about where to attend school, especially if multiple schools adopt the sheet. Families often get confused looking at different formats of award notifications because it’s like comparing apples to oranges, Warner said.

“I support the notion of a standardized award notification so that students and parents have apples and apples to compare,” he said.

Some schools are less enthusiastic about the sheet.

Roberta Johnson, the director of student financial aid at Iowa State University, said officials there have yet to decide what to do with the sheet.  She said they would adopt it for their student veterans, but possibly not for other students.  The biggest concern she mentioned was the net-cost box.

“For students who may not be eligible for a scholarship or a grant, it could be a disincentive,” she said. “They’re going to look at that figure and say I didn’t get any scholarships, and I didn’t get any grants, and therefore I can’t go.”

Johnson said the net-cost box may be misleading because it includes estimated costs for books, transportation, and living expenses, which will be different for all students.

In the coming weeks, Johnson said she will discuss with her staff what is best for ISU to do with the sheet.

“The biggest worry I’ve heard from people is whether or not this net price is going to [discourage] them from going to college in the first place or might push them to community college,” she said.

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