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US: Universities urged to make costs clear

By Jordan Blum
The U.S. Department of Education began a push for colleges nationwide to switch to a standardized form breaking down the cost of higher education for each individual student per year.

The new, one-page “Shopping Sheet” is designed to get past the sticker prices and tell each student how much college will cost when factoring in tuition and fees, housing, eligible financial aid, student loan and work-study options and more. The sheet also includes information showing each college’s graduation rate and its average median borrowing and student loan default rates.

The initiative is part of President Barack Obama’s to make college costs more transparent as the costs of tuition and fees have skyrocketed nationwide for decades.

“Countless students I meet across the country feel like the first time they really understood how much student loan debt they were in was when the first bill arrived,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said during the announcement on Tuesday.

“We must unravel the mystery of higher education pricing by giving students and families the information they need to make smart educational choices,” Duncan added. “The Shopping Sheet is a positive step in that direction.”

LSU, for instance, will cost nearly $7,000 in tuition and fees this fall after another round of tuition hikes. But the university estimates the total cost to attend LSU for a year as an undergraduate student living on campus is more than $15,600 when housing, textbooks and other costs are counted. However, that does not include the potential scholarships, federal grants and other awards and loans that are available to students.

The Shopping Sheet attempts to answer all those question on one page.

The federal government is asking the nation’s more than 7,000 colleges to voluntarily adopt the new standardized form in 2013. Duncan sent an open letter Tuesday to college and university presidents nationwide asking them to adopt the new sheet, rather than each school using a different type of financial aid form.

“Having easy-to-understand information will help students and families make smarter decisions about higher education,” Duncan said. “We don’t want students and families taking on more debt than they need. We don’t want them defaulting. Worst of all, we don’t want them deciding they cannot afford college.”

Louisiana Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell said understanding college costs is about as important as grades and standardized test scores these days.

“This new student aid form certainly seems congruent with (Louisiana Board of) Regents’ initiatives aimed at maximizing financial aid options in an effort to improve our state’s educational attainment and it is our hope that campuses will seriously consider adopting its use,” Purcell said in an email response.

The two Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation also are backing the new effort.

“For many students, taking on student loans is the biggest financial decision they have made in their lives, but far too many of them do not fully understand what they are signing up for,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. “It is important that our students understand the value of higher education, as well as their financial aid options, including any debt they are taking on.”

Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, noted that 7.4 million college students are relying on loans.

“This tool helps to educate and empower our students to make strategic financial choices,” Richmond said in an email response. “We don’t want them looking back after graduation without a firm understanding of how they financed this investment.”

The federal effort is a partnership with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Since posting a draft version of the Shopping Sheet for public comment in October, more than 1,000 public comments were reviewed before releasing the final version Tuesday, according to the Department of Education. (The Advocate)

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