Universities aim to clear up tuition fee confusion with 'shopping sheet'

As incoming undergraduate students gear up to start college this autumn, they face the sobering prospect that fees could climb by more than 50% by the time they graduate in 2016.

That’s if the past few years are anything to go by – the cost of a four-year public education rose by 15% between 2008 and 2010, according to recent Department of Education (DoE) figures.

The data, released last week, are part of the DoE’s annual College Affordability and Transparency List, which aims to make clearer to parents the confusing assemblage of notices, bills and receipts involved in paying for college.

Among the states hit the hardest were Ohio, which had five of the 33 priciest colleges, and Georgia, where six state institutions saw 40% or more tuition fee hikes.

But there is a silver lining. Earlier this month the Barack Obama administration, along with 10 college presidents, agreed to provide students with clearer information on their financial aid options.

Nearly 100 private and public colleges and universities, including the New York and Texas tertiary state systems, will provide parents and students with a one-page ‘shopping sheet’ detailing what they can expect to pay for a year of studies.

The document aims to provide user-friendly information on financial aid options, and will outline the total tuition cost per year, and explain the difference between grants and scholarships, the net cost after aid is taken into account, the estimated monthly payments to pay back loans, and retention and default rates.

Parents and students have for years complained that financial aid reward letters are too confusing and don’t adequately explain exactly how much college will cost and how much they will owe after graduation.

Yet universities have until now been reticent to create a standardised letter, arguing that it could have the opposite effect and confuse students further.

The shopping sheet is voluntary, and it’s not clear whether more colleges and universities will follow suit. It comes at a time when students are borrowing more to fund their education – about two-thirds of undergraduates owe more than $26,000 in federal and private student loans upon graduating, according to the DoE.

“While a quality higher education remains a sound investment, students and families need to clearly understand the costs and benefits of each college they’re considering so they can easily compare choices and identify the best value prior to enrolling,” according to a White House statement.

Obama has criticised colleges for not being more transparent, and he’s made the rising cost of higher education a key issue in the upcoming election.

Some experts say that tuition increases are a normal and expected occurrence – it’s the state budget cuts that make the increases more severe. Higher numbers of incoming students also exacerbate the problem.

“Even when some states don't decrease state support in dollars per se, when institutions serve more students they're doing so with less money per student,” said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Private colleges fared slightly better, with a 10% tuition fee hike between 2008 and 2010.

Cooper said the tuition fee increases were more severe at public universities because these institutions have lower tuition fees, so “the same dollar increase at a public and a private will generate a higher percentage increase at the lower-cost institution,” she said.

Obama’s next challenge will come on 1 July, when federal student loan rates are set to increase from 3.4% to 6.8%, raising the cost of college for more than seven million students.