How Financial Aid Letters Often Leave Students Confused and Misinformed
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Some colleges do consider parental income when they suggest Parent Plus loans. Ringling College of Art and Design uses an algorithm to determine the recommended loan amount. The school's letter notes that the listed amount is "an estimate of what you may wish to consider borrowing, and is partly based on your income." Parents, it says, "may apply for more or less."
Similarly, Drexel University — a private university in Philadelphia — packages in Parent Plus but "does take into account the ability of the family to contribute to the education cost for the suggested Plus loan amount," said Niki Gianakaris, a university spokeswoman. (Gianakaris said the school is also revamping its award letter to make clearer distinctions between grants, scholarships and loans.)
It's not clear whether these more conservative approaches to packaging in Parent Plus loans actually result in more conservative borrowing: At Drexel, the average Parent Plus loan was more than $24,000 in the 2010-2011 fiscal year. Meanwhile, the average parent loan at Ringling topped $26,000. That's much higher than the average Plus loan across all schools that year: $11,877.
As of late last month, more than 300 schools — representing about 10 percent of all undergrads — had adopted the Education Department's model letter.
Some members of Congress have tried to go further. Earlier this year, Sen. Al Franken sponsored legislation that would make it mandatory for all institutions of higher education to adopt a standardized financial aid award form. The bill is still in committee.
"Students and parents are not getting consistent, accessible and comparable information about college costs and their financial aid offers," Sen. Tom Harkin said in an emailed statement. Harkin is chairman of the Senate education committee and a co-sponsor of Franken's bill. "A concerted effort at all levels — campus, community, state and federal — is necessary to ensure that families have the information they need to make the decision that is best for them."