Have a look at this “Financial Aid Offer” from a public university in the West, below. (It’s genuine, but the names of the university and student have been removed.)
If I were a parent I would look first at the bottom line, which says:
Total Unmet Need: $0.00
Wow! That sounds great. And look, the Estimated Family Contribution is also $0.00. What could be better?
Unfortunately, the financial aid offer is much slimmer than 100 percent. It’s 60 percent, a combination of federal and university money.
The full cost of attendance for one year is $37,568. The university is offering $13,670, plus an opportunity to work at the university (“federal work study”) for $2,000. The federal government is also providing $6,730 in grant money. In other words, the university and federal government are offering 60 percent of the cost of attendance.
Everything else laid out on the page—although described as “Total Financial Aid Offer”—is a student loan, which must be paid back.
Based on its filing in FAFSA (the federal government’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid), the family is supposedly expected to pay nothing for college (“Estimated Family Contribution—$0.00”). But in fact, if the offer is accepted, the family will pay $15,068—40 percent of the cost of attendance, and all of that will be borrowed.
That’s for one year. For four years, the student will have to borrow over $60,000.
This is a student with limited financial resources, as evidenced by the estimated family contribution. Yet once this student graduates, she will be starting out with her diploma and a lot of debt—about twice what the average college borrower graduates with.
What will her chance of getting a mortgage be a few years down the road?
And if she doesn’t graduate, she will be starting out without a diploma, but with significant debt.
One could draw many questions from this form—such as why does going to a public university cost $37,568? And why is the family “expected” to pay zero? All I want to draw from it now is the fact that our universities are blithely being deceptive in order to make families think that paying for college is a breeze.
The facts are otherwise. Is that the way for our much-honored universities to communicate?