Consumer rights advocates work themselves into a wrathful froth over the misdeeds of banks, payday lenders, credit card companies, and mortgage lenders. But what about the truth-in-lending abuses perpetrated by institutions of higher education? We don’t hear so much.
With the cost of attendance of a four-year degree routinely exceeding $100,000, selecting a college can be one of the biggest financial decisions that Americans can make — probably the biggest decision for low-income families that never purchased a house. But the financial terms and conditions provided in acceptance letters are notoriously opaque, finds a study by the New America think tank and financial-counseling firm uAspire.
The two outfits published a study last week based upon an examination of 11,000 award letters sent in 2016 by more than 900 colleges. Summarizes NewAmerica’s Kevin Carey in the Wall Street Journal: “It found most of them use obscure terminology, omit vital information, or present financial calculations that appear deliberately deceptive. Many letters are confusing in their own unique ways, making it difficult for students to compare colleges.”
Of the 515 colleges that awarded them via nonstandard letters, more than a third provided no information about how much attending school would cost. The letters highlighted grants and scholarships as a way of convincing students to enroll, but without listing tuition or explaining how much money students would owe. …
The letters that did disclose costs were inconsistent. Some listed only tuition. Others included room and board. Others added books and estimated living expenses. … Seventy percent of colleges with nonstandard letters created further confusion by lumping together grants and loans, as if both were freebies.
Carey cited a letter sent by the University of Arizona that told a student that the cost of attendance was $48,200 a year, then subtracted $5,815 in grants, $5,500 in work-study opportunities, and $26,885 in loans. “Net Costs After All Aid” were “$0.00.”
A used car dealer who delivered a pitch like that would be slammed with a fine and driven out of business.
Many (not all) public colleges and universities engage in practices that would make a payday lender blush. It all makes sense when you understand that higher-ed institutions are, beneath the lofty rhetoric about justice and equality, mechanisms for the extraction of wealth from students and taxpayers, the pursuit of status and prestige within the academic community, and the remuneration of elite faculty and administrators.
Feeding the system requires inducing as many students as possible to enroll, which is becoming increasingly difficult as the cost of attendance continues to outpace incomes and financial aid.
How can lower-income Americans be protected from the higher-ed racket? New America recommends requiring colleges to use a standardized award letter that explains expenses, grants and loans clearly so recipients can easily compare offers by competing institutions. The Department of Veterans Affairs already mandates this kind of transparency for students benefiting from the GI Bill. Congress should require a standardized letter for all institutions receiving federal money.
And if Congress doesn’t act, I would suggest, the Commonwealth of Virginia could require a standardized letter for all state institutions — or, at the very least, for institutions offering state-funded financial aid. Colleges and universities should be free to determine the substance of their own financial aid packages, but there should be full transparency in how those packages are presented to students and their families.