I think we’ve hit the tipping point for how much families and the government are willing to put up with the rising cost of college and the shrouded cloak of secrecy under which the college admissions process works. Are you aware that over the past month the government has made three major changes that significantly impact college admissions and financial aid ? And amazingly, these changes should all tip the scales in favor of helping students by improving the availability of information so families can make better college planning decisions.
1. FAFSA will no longer share your child’s list of colleges. In the past, students were asked to list all the schools they were applying to on their FAFSA. Unbeknownst to most families, schools could see this full list and used the order in which students listed schools as an indication of a student’s order of preference. Many colleges used this assumed list of preferences as part of their admissions and financial aid decisions, a kind of sneaky move. Research had shown that students were less likely to enroll at schools that were further down on their list, but thankfully this information will no longer be shared with the coming 2016 FAFSA.
Sadly, there is still one more place to be concerned about with regards to sharing what other colleges your child is applying to – and that is the Common Application. Despite continued challenges from NACAC (the National Association of College Admissions Counselors), the Common App continues to allow individual colleges (over 125) to require applicants provide information on where else they are applying. This is a heated topic of debate and one that may be addressed at NACAC’s upcoming conference where a proposal will be presented to prevent colleges from asking this information. If approved, it will go into effect for next year’s (2017) admissions cycle. We hope FAFSA’s precedent is strong enough to persuade NACAC members to bane this type of behavior among colleges.
2. The Government reveals a new website with never before released data, called the College Scorecard. The government is finally helping families do a better job of researching colleges by unveiling a heap of data through this new website.
“You’ll be able to see how much each school’s graduates earn, how much debt they graduate with, and what percentage of a school’s students can pay back their loans,” the president said in his weekly address.
If you enjoy sifting through data, this may be your dream come true. The College Scorecard allows users to filter colleges by graduation rates, average annual cost, and the salary of students ten years after entering school. And that’s after using features to create a custom list of schools based on the usual search criteria of major, location, size, public/private, and 2- or 4-year degree. That’s a lot of slicing and dicing.
Overall, I think this is great data but it’s important for families to understand where the information comes from, what story it is telling, and use the results as a guide to ask colleges more detailed questions. Keep in mind this data is based solely on information from students that received government aid. That means information from students who did not receive government aid is not represented. So, statistics from some colleges will be significantly different than the averages across those colleges entire student population. The numbers also do not include information related to parent PLUS or private student loans.
For example: At Babson College the median total debt is $27,000. But this doesn’t actually include data from those students who took out non-federal loans. Also note that the College Scorecard uses median value (remember learning the difference between median vs. average??) The median is the number where half the numbers are lower and half the numbers are higher, while the average is the sum of the data divided by the number of data points. The median and the average might be close and they might not. A median is generally used when the information is skewed by extreme data points. Getting back to the Babson example, if undergraduates can borrow a maximum of $31,000 in subsidized and unsubsidized federal loans, then a median total debt of $27,000 is close to the maximum and half of all students have $27,000 in federal debt OR MORE. Interestingly enough, you can’t sort or filter the schools based on median total debt. This example shows that data is worthwhile if you understand where it comes from, what it represents, and how to use the results.
3. FAFSA will be available earlier and will be easier to complete. Starting in fall of 2016, the FAFSA will be available in October compared to it’s usually opening date of January 1st. That means high school seniors can submit their FAFSA earlier and get need based financial aid information along with admissions decisions and have more time to review their offers before making final decisions. Many students receive acceptances before hearing about financial aid offers and are sometimes in positions of having to accept without a final financial aid offer in hand. With the new timing of FAFSA, this shouldn’t be the case.
In addition, the government is making it easier to fill out the FAFSA by allowing families to use tax information from the prior prior year (two year old completed tax returns). That’s because this tax information will already be complete and final by the time October comes around. The other major bonus to use prior prior year tax info is that the IRS can automatically fill in a big chunk of everyone’s FAFSA by using the new IRS data retrieval tool that can pre-populate the FAFSA with completed tax information.
There are still lots of questions to be answered related to how these changes will impact colleges and will schools realign their own institutional financial aid forms, as well as the College Board CSS profile form, which currently uses prior year tax information. There are definitely kinks to be worked out, especially for colleges that will need to shuffle deadlines and processing timelines, but it all seems like a step in the right direction.
So does this feel like you’ve won the trifecta? Maybe. Parents still need to save (and spend) A LOT to send their children to college and colleges aren’t doing a good enough job of controlling costs, but at least people in positions to influence the college admissions process for the better are working on it and starting to succeed.