Deciphering and comparing college financial aid award letters can be a tricky task. Parents and students must first understand the differences between financial aid terms like gift aid and self-help aid, grants and loans, and then must look out for ways schools present that information—if it's included in aid awards at all.
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But a new federal form, the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, aims to add clarity to the decision-making process for students in the 2013-2014 school year and beyond. The standardized template released Tuesday by the Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau clearly lays out total costs of attendance, grants and scholarships offered, and net costs (what families will pay after aid is taken into account).
The form also shows students their options to cover those net costs, including any work-study opportunities, federal loans, and school-specific payment plans.
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A handful of schools, including the University of Texas system and Vassar College, have already committed to using the voluntary form, which will also include key, school-specific statistics including the six-year graduation rate, the loan default rate, and the median amount students borrow. For students who were accepted to several schools that use the template, comparing financial aid award letters would ostensibly be a much easier task.
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"It's a really great format," says Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) of the Shopping Sheet. "It lays out, clearly, what students and families need to make truly informed decisions."
Even students accepted to schools that are not yet using the Shopping Sheet can benefit, Asher notes. Using the template as a guide, students can work their way through nonstandardized award letters, picking out key pieces of information that are included, and hunting down others that weren't provided up front.
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"Right now, colleges are not required to provide the full cost of attendance ... or even to provide the contact information for a financial aid office," Asher says. "Even with blanks in it, students and families can use [the Shopping Sheet] as a guide for the information they should be able to extract from their award letters, and to try to find some of this information [elsewhere]."
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