Censoring Financial Aid Information

With about 800 other people, I’ve been spending the last couple of days at the WACAC conference at the University of San Francisco. WACAC stands for the Western Association for College Admission Counseling.

I gave a speech on shrinking the cost of college — one of my favorite topics — at the educational conference that attracts high school and independent college counselors, as well as college admission officers. My room was tucked away in an obscure spot so I worried that I’d be giving my Power Point presentation to a classroom of empty chairs. To prevent that from happening, I borrowed some masking tape and drew my own sign so people would know where to find me.

As it turned out, the presentation was standing room only. I was gratified with the turnout and I think it illustrates that many dedicated counselors are hungry for more information about how students can find schools that are academic and financial fits.

Unfortunately, too many counselors shy away from the financial side of college counseling, which boggles my mind.  Finding a financial match is just as important as pinpointing schools that offer wonderful academics.

Financial Aid Black Out

That’s why I was surprised recently when the WACAC newsletter committee rejected an article that I wrote about financial aid. The high school counselor, who has the thankless job of putting the newsletter together, contacted me and told me that the committee concluded that my financial aid article wasn’t appropriate. She said I hoped I understood, but I was dumbfounded and responded:  “No, I don’t understand.”

The counselor explained that financial aid is a topic they have never covered in the newsletter and that counselors have to be careful because of “liability” issues. I told her that I think that the real liability is ignoring the subject.

Too many uninformed families are picking schools blindly because they don’t know how to evaluate schools financially and they aren’t getting that information from counselors. This leads to tremendous disappointment and tears every spring when high school seniors get into schools without receiving adequate financial aid packages. A lot of this tears could be avoided with solid information about financial aid.

Unfortunately, many high school counselors have told me that they deal with the financial aid issue by holding an annual financial aid night with two or three local college reps.

I’ve gone to some of these financial aid nights and when I have my head has almost exploded. The college reps — who are often from the admission offices and not financial aid offices — stick with safe topics such as why parents need to fill out the FAFSA. Okay, that’s important, but knowing that you need to complete the FAFSA and possibly the PROFILE is a just a tiny fraction of the financial aid information that moms and dads need to digest.

Parents want to know if schools are going to be generous to their children. To figure that out, you need to understand how to determine what the financial fingerprint of a college is. If you attend the typical financial aid night, you’ll never leave with the answers.

I could go on and on, but I won’t. I would suggest that you read my post about high school counselors that I wrote a few months ago:

Why High School Counselors Don’t Know Much About College

I’d rather end here and go out and explore San Francisco. I don’t get the chance very often!

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and a new eBook, Shrinking the Cost of College. She also blogs for CBSMoneyWatch. Follow her on Twitter.

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  1. Lynn what do you think about the new Department of Education requirement for schools to post calculators on their web sites that present the net price to attend the college (e.g., Net Price Calculator)? Some schools we speak with plan to use this as a meaningful tool to present financial aid information upfront to prospects as they consider which school is a good fit for them. Sounds like it could be a good tool to help address the problem.