Planning for the Shopping Sheet -- Make a List and Check it Twice

06 Nov 2012 2:21 PM | Anonymous

Planning for the Shopping Sheet -- Make a List and Check it Twice
Linda Peckham
Senior Training Strategist, Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation

The Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, developed by the Department of Education in conjunction with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, was designed to provide students with an improved comparison tool when making a college enrollment decision. The form is intended to help students better understand how much grant aid, versus loan and work aid, they are being offered. The form also provides information about the college, including graduation rates, default rates, and average student indebtedness, to help students make a more informed choice.

Although not mandatory for the 2013-14 aid cycle (except for institutions that must comply under E.O. 13607), over 350 institutions will adopt the Shopping Sheet and are actively planning for implementation, most without the support of their enterprise software providers. The Great Lakes Training team spoke with several of these institutions to learn more about why they chose to participate in this first year and to ask what advice they would offer their peer institutions who will implement the template next year.

Ryan C. Williams, Associate Vice President of Enrollment Management at Syracuse University, says the university embraced the new Shopping Sheet because "it really supports our core mission to provide financial literacy for students throughout their lifecycle with us - from pre-enrollment to graduation." Reflecting on the usefulness of the Shopping Sheet for students, he noted, "The Sheet will really highlight those institutions that do not meet full need, and it will make it much more apparent to students what their future debt burden will be." Williams also feels that by providing the Shopping Sheet to returning students, the institution can help offer better information about increasing loan debt for students who take longer than four years to graduate. "They will be able to see the immediate impact of these decisions on their future loan debt."

Gaining a full understanding of future debt burdens and understanding the risk-benefit analysis of the enrollment decision is very much the Department of Education's intended goal of the template. But as Tabatha Turner, Senior Associate Director of Scholarships and Student Aid at UNC-Chapel Hill, notes, "Students will still use 'emotional college when making a collecge choice even when the long-term costs are made clear, but at least the Sheet will provide a way for families to compare those choices consistently from college to college and in ways that differ from the traditional award letter."

The Shopping Sheet, for example, will illustrate for a family that "Net Cost" is the difference between total cost and gift aid. Student loans, work-study, and Parent PLUS loans are listed as "options to pay net costs." In this way, the Shopping Sheet will clarify that loans, if needed, may in fact increase the long-term cost of the educational purchase decision.

Rick Shipman, Director of Financial Aid at Michigan State University, agrees that the Shopping Sheet, with its increased clarity about loans, will
help students understand the bottom line about their college purchase decision and highlight the long-term impact of their college choice on their financial lives." He cautions that for some students, the Shopping Sheet cannot replace the benefits of one-on-one counseling with financial aid staff about the award letter, and advises his staff to work closely with at-risk families before they make enrollment decisions.

At the University of Notre Dame, Director of Financial Aid Mary Nucciarone and her team are strong supporters of the Shopping Sheet and are working to make it available to both entering and returning students by early March. She emphasizes that the Shopping Sheet, with its comprehensive data about average debt, default rates and graduation rates, is a great tool for schools to display "their good news to students."

Nucciarone anticipates, however, that the Shopping Sheet will generate questions. For example for students who do not receive any loans as part of their award, Nucciarone notes, "The Shopping Sheet delineates loan information and students may wonder why their aid award letter does not include them or why the average loan debt is being reported on the Sheet." She is working with her counseling staff to find ways to help families understand the differences between the Shopping Sheet and the institutional award letter.

The Department of Education is currently building partnerships with enterprise software providers so that they can support the use of the Shopping Sheet in future award cycles and make it easier for more schools to use the tool. In the meantime, most of the 350 early adopters are using institutional resources to make the template work in this first year. Tips for colleagues considering adopting the Shopping Sheet this year or next include:

  • Prepare your IT department. IT will need to be able to support the template by providing student-specific data on a timely basis. Most of the information required on the Shopping Sheet is housed in the campus system but may not be in the aid office.
  • Think about your campus-wide messages about net price and affordability. For some schools, this may mean re-framing the way student loans are described as part of the affordability conversation.
  • Strongly consider adopting the form for returning as well as entering students, as part of your financial literacy and counseling efforts.
  • Use the customized box on the Shopping Sheet to offer additional information to students.
  • Anticipate questions from students and parents. The Shopping Sheet information might appear to be different from the award letter notification in some cases. Ensure that both your financial aid and admissions staff can respond to these questions.

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