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College Financial Aid Packages May Become Clearer in 2013

Ten schools have already committed to sending detailed information to accepted students.

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In the latest push for greater transparency on college costs, 10 schools publicly pledged to release detailed financial information to accepted students starting in the 2013-2014 school year, and the Obama administration hopes more will sign on to the effort. 

For prospective college students and their families, the commitment made on June 5 means they may be able to more easily understand and compare aspects of the financial aid award packages from schools to which they've been accepted—a task that currently can prove tricky.

Since there is no requirement for what is disclosed in accepted students' financial aid award packages, families might mistake a loan offer as free money they won't have to pay back, for example, or may not grasp the total cost of a year of college once all fees are added. 

[Avoid making these financial aid assumptions.] 

But in future aid award seasons, packages from at least 10 schools will include clear and comparable information, including a year's cost of college, the differences between types of financial aid offered, such as scholarships and loans, and what a federal student loan payment may look like after graduation. Schools that made the public commitment released by the White House on June 5 include Arizona State University, Syracuse University, all campuses in the University of Texas and the University of Maryland systems, and Vassar College, among others. 

The commitment, while not yet a widespread guarantee, is a positive development, says Lauren Asher, president of nonprofit research organization The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS). 

"It is a step in the right direction that colleges are being asked to step up, and are stepping up, to say that they will make their aid offers more clear and comparable and emphasize some key figures that make it much easier for people to figure out what an aid package is worth," Asher says. 

The pledge comes on the heels of other recent government initiatives to help families better understand what college might cost them at each step of the planning, application, and decision processes. Under a federal mandate that began last fall, every college is required to provide an online net price calculator to help families gauge what they'd need to spend at a particular school, which can help with future forecasting and college planning. 

[Find out 10 key facts about net price calculators.] 

And in recent months, federal agency the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) created a college cost comparison tool, launched the Know Before You Owe campaign, which lends transparency to student loans, and began accepting questions and complaints from student loan holders. 

The CFPB is also involved in the latest commitment, creating a Financial Aid Shopping Sheet that colleges can use in future financial aid award packages to add clarity for prospective students and parents. The CFPB is accepting critiques on the tool until June 20, after which it will release a revised version that, according to a White House press release on the June 5 announcement, "will serve as an easy way for institutions to fulfill this commitment to transparency in helping Americans understand financial aid costs for college." 

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