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Students and Families Unprepared for College, Financial Aid Application Process

February 10, 2010

by Agnes Jasinski

Despite recent trends of more students across the country enrolling at institutions of higher learning, many students and their families remain mostly uninformed and unprepared to navigate the college and financial aid application process, according to a report issued yesterday called "Planning for College: A Consumer Approach to the Higher Education Marketplace."

The report, from MassINC, a think tank in Massachusetts, looked at decisions students and families need to make when applying to and paying for college, and the information they need to make those decisions. It found that students and parents currently have great difficulty "getting the most out of their col­lege dollar," as the price of higher education only continues to rise.

Perhaps even more alarming is that families have started borrowing more to pay for college, without considering risk and the rate of their return. Related to increases in student borrowing amounts, an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday looks at the idea that doctoral students finish faster if they take out large loans. The most obvious answer why is that taking out more student loans allows the students to take more classes, and quit part-time jobs that may have been reducing their college costs. It's a choice students must make every day - should you sacrifice some comfort to reduce your student loan debt, even if it means taking longer to complete your degree? It's a personal decision, but students should be aware that they'll be expected to start repaying any debt once they graduate.

The Massachusetts study also found that students and families had little knowledge of tax benefits and college savings plans, and how to compare them. For example, there are 118 different 529 Plans, and the resources out there do little in the way of pointing consumers to the advantages and disadvantages of each. Families and students also admit to knowing little about the actual sticker price of colleges, as that often depends on the funds available to assist incoming students, an unknown when those students first apply.

The report's authors suggest families and students must become more like "savvy consumers" who are able to understand and successfully manipulate the college and financial aid application process to their advantage. The process should also be made less complex, an idea that is already being explored by federal legislation such as the Higher Education Opportunity Act. Finally, families need reliable measures about the educational experience that colleges and universities offer beyond the annual rankings we see in the Princeton Review, for example. According to the report, while the U.S. Department of Education is providing increasingly consistent and accessible indicators, such as graduation rates, this branch of the college-bound decision remains the weakest.


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