10 hallmarks of a student-friendly financial aid offer

A new report from the American Talent Initiative (ATI) recommends 10 ways to improve financial aid offers, calling them ”a powerful tool” in shaping families’ college decisions and “an important and early step in making students feel welcomed to the campus community.”

ATI—of which Georgetown University is a founding member—is an alliance of four-year colleges and universities with graduation rates above 70 percent committed to enrolling and graduating an additional 50,000 low- and moderate-income students by 2025. The initiative notes that “transparency about affordability, college costs, and financial aid is crucial to supporting students and their families in choosing the right colleges,” especially as participating schools work to deliver more financial aid resources.

Yet, researchers have found that most financial aid offers do not even calculate what students need to pay, leading to confusion and possibly deterring students from enrolling at top-tier institutions.

Related: Financial aid award letters are often vague, confusing >

ATI offers 10 recommendations for ensuring that financial aid offers better meet student, advisor, and institutional needs:

  1. Prominently and clearly display a student’s net price, the amount they will owe after scholarship and grant awards are subtracted from the total cost of attendance.
  2. Explain how much students will pay to the university directly versus how much they will need for other, indirect, expenses such as transportation and course materials.
  3. Itemize within each category so students and families understand the specific costs that go into top-line financial calculations.
  4. Clearly explain the options students have for covering their net price—for instance, federal direct loans or work-study.
  5. Simplify complex financial language where possible. Provide plain-language explanations and glossaries when jargon is unavoidable.
  6. Thoroughly and clearly explain student loans and work-study, aid components that are often confusing for students. For instance, students may not know that work-study aid hinges on securing a work-study-eligible job or that the aid will be delivered via paychecks spread across the year.
  7. Package the offer letter with the introductory material and context needed to make the information coherent, share points of contact, and communicate next steps.
  8. Avoid overwhelming students with too much information; instead, direct them to online institutional, state, and federal resources.
  9. Humanize the offer letter, encouraging students to contact a university staff member for additional information.
  10. Keep the offer letter consistent with institutional branding, using color and design elements to make the materials informative and welcoming.

The transparency created by these improvements has significant implications, ATI notes. High-quality offer letters not only give students a clearer sense of affordability but also reduce the risk that families will underestimate their financial obligations. “The consequences of miscalculation are high,” ATI writes, adding that “in the worst cases, students drop out with thousands of dollars lost, thousands more in debt, and no degree.”


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