Report calls for ‘congressional action’ to address confusing financial aid offers

The Government Accountability Office states that ‘91% of colleges understate or don't include the net price [of tuition and other expenses] in their offers.’

Confusing or misleading letters on financial aid packages can ‘lead to students borrowing more than they need to, which can affect them for years,’ according to NPR.

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office suggests that financial aid offers sent to accepted college and university students can make it “difficult for students to compare offers and assess college affordability.”

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) provides “timely, fact-based, non-partisan information that can be used to improve government and save taxpayers billions of dollars,” according to its website. 

Confusing or misleading letters on financial aid packages can “lead to students borrowing more than they need to, which can affect them for years, or not buying textbooks, or even cutting back on food,” NPR reported

GAO shared data on how offer letters can mislead students. “91% of colleges understate or don’t include the net price in their offers,” the report reads. GAO defined net price as “how much a student will need to pay to attend that college,” finding that “[m]any colleges exclude key costs and factor in loans that must be repaid.”

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Key costs include “tuition, fees, housing and meals, books, and living expenses,” according to the report. About 50 percent of colleges and universities understate net price, while 41 percent exclude it altogether. 

Such an offer letter “makes a college appear less expensive than it is” or “may leave students guessing how much they will need to pay,” GAO wrote. 

The author of NPR’s report, Elissa Nadworny, told Campus Reform that she “do[esn’t] think there’s a purposeful misleading going on here.”  

”Schools are just trying to persuade students to say yes,” Nadworny said. 

GAO’s report says that colleges and universities are not required by law to standardize their offer letters, but “a recent law requires colleges to provide standard financial aid information to certain student veterans.” 

“Further congressional action would be necessary to ensure that all students receive the information they need in their financial aid offers to make informed education and financial choices,” GAO argued. 

Melissa Emrey-Arras, GAO’s Director of Education, Workforce and Income Security, told Campus Reform that Rep. Virginia Foxx requested GAO’s report and “introduced the College Cost Transparency and Student Protection Act” as a response. 

HR 9429 would “direct the Secretary of Education to publish requirements for financial aid offers to be provided by institutions of higher education.”

Campus Reform previously reported that 27 of the top 30 universities planned to increase tuition for the 2022-2023 academic year, with all 30 increasing tuition at least once since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Another report from Campus Reform showed that tuition hikes also came from universities that received “record-breaking” donations, including Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) and Missouri State University (MSU). 

As tuition increased, Campus Reform analyzed the relationship between tuition and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) spending at four North Carolina universities. Campus Reform “found a correlation between higher tuition and [DEI] spending at private colleges compared to state-funded institutions.” 

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The two private schools in the analysis, Duke University and Wake Forest University, “spen[t] more per student on Student Services costs” than the public schools, the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University (NC State). 

The report cited the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), which said “that Student Services costs ‘often also include diversity and inclusion initiatives.’” 

Duke’s “Office of Institutional Equity produces ‘Affirmative Action Plans,’ DEI workshops, and trainings on anti-racism and microaggressions,” according to Campus Reform

The same analysis said that Wake Forest has similarly hosted ”’Identity Development Initiatives’ that include programs such as ‘Making Meaning of Men & Masculinities.’”

Campus Reform contacted NPR and the Government Accountability Office. This article will be updated accordingly.