Author: Dervarics, Charles
Date published: May 10, 2012
For more than 1 million high school seniors - including many low-income students - the spring season means decision time in selecting a college for next year. But wading through competing and complex financial aid packages can bring even more confusion, which is one reason the federal government is offering a new online tool to help families make these critical decisions.
The new Financial Aid Comparison Shopper is an interactive tool for students and their parents to compare costs between individual colleges and universities. Students can enter tuition and room and board costs as well as details from financial aid award letters so they can compare the remaining costs that will require family contributions and student loans.
"Student debt is increasing, and there is a lack of clear, concise information that actually helps students make the best financial choices," said Rich Williams, higher education advocate at US PIRG.
The comparison shopper, he told Diverse, is "a really cool idea for students to plug in numbers and look at the amount of loans they might need. It's a unique experience."
Users to the site enter in one or more higher education institutions and the system provides current tuition, room and board and other costs. Students then can enter detailed information from their financial aid offers, including, amount of Pell Grant aid and other scholarships.
For each institution, the system also can provide information on students' estimated monthly loan repayments after graduation.
The web tool is a product of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), created in 2010 as part of the Obama administration's efforts to promote accountability in the financial services industry. CFPB has identified private student loans as one area of college finance that needs additional oversight to protect consumers, and the bureau has begun accepting complaints against private lenders.
"Student loan debt has crossed the $1 trillion mark and tuition continues to climb," said Richard Cordray, CFPB director. "Now more than ever, students and their families need to know before they owe."
The Financial Aid Comparison Shopper also has several unique offerings. For example:
* A "military benefit calculator" can estimate education benefits for servicemembers, veterans, and their families based on military tuition assistance and benefits from the Post-9/ 1 1 GI Bill.
* In addition to calculating estimated debt at graduation, the tool provides information on this debt in relation to a graduate's average starting salary in the workplace.
* For each college, the site also includes detailed information on graduation, retention and student loan default rates.
* A contributions tab allows users to provide information on what students and their families can pay, thereby detailing unmet needs. Users also can save their information and update it as needed.
Student advocates welcome the new web service but note that marketing and outreach are vital to its use.
"It's a great tool," said Victor Sánchez, president of the United States Student Association. But students still have to learn about it and use it. "It all comes down to its visibility" he told Diverse.
The agency should utilize social media to help publicize the site to students and families, he said, while high school counselors also need to encourage its use. Sánchez is hopeful that the tool can help students and families get a realistic view of college costs so fewer will rely on costly private loans to cover remaining unmet need.
CFPB, he said, also can "play a larger role in monitoring private student loan debt."
The new agency has its critics, however, as House Republicans have called for funding cuts in the agency to meet targets in the 2013 spending plan devised by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Mich., chairman of the House Budget Committee.
"The CFPB is an independent federal agency whose authority is unprecedented and far-reaching," said Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-AIa., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, which is recommending funding cutbacks next year.
"This is a legitimate threat," Sánchez said, though he noted that the Democrat-controlled Senate is likely to fight to protect the program.
The agency also has strong support from many public interest groups, Williams added. CFPB is "the cop on the consumer beat," he noted.
For more information on the Financial Aid Comparison Shopper, visit the web site at www.consumerfinance.gov/payingforcollege.