Feds Suggest New Form for College Comparison Shopping

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The internet has fueled people’s ability to comparison shop for everything from flights to shoes. And now, with a new federal initiative, officials at Raleigh colleges and universities are hoping they can make it easier to use such a strategy when it comes to shopping for higher education.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent an open letter Tuesday to all colleges and universities asking that they voluntarily adopt the use of a universal “shopping sheet.” The sheet will give a breakdown of cost, financial awards such as scholarships and grants, and loans.

NC State University could to adopt the new document in the fall of 2013.

“It’s very important to make it easier to understand,” said Krista Domnick, director of the NC State office of scholarships and financial aid. “We want our students and families to understand what it’s costing them and be able to compare the award letter from one college to another.”

Like NC State, William Peace University and Meredith College already use some type of cost comparison form. But, officials at Meredith and Peace said they’ll use what they already have, rather than switch to the Washington-issued document.

Debra Townsley, president of Peace, said her school’s form is “very similar.”

“We think it’s a good form and we’ve had families tell us they appreciate it. We’ll continue to use it whether or not this becomes a standard,” Townsley said.

A representative for Meredith said the college may decide to tweak its own forms based on the U.S. Department of Education’s suggestion.

A brief glance at the forms below offers an idea of how daunting comparison shopping can be. Financial forms can vary wildly from school to school.

Meredith, for instance, issues a 20-page, detailed packet for value comparisons, along with a financial aid award letter. NC State and Peace use one-page sheets that more closely resemble the new version promoted the the secretary of education, but the formats are completely different.

Adding to the mix is the fact that information is provided online as well as in print, Domnick said.

“This not only makes it challenging to understand how much college costs, but hard to do comparison shopping,” Secretary Duncan told reporters in a conference call Monday.

Duncan said the Department of Education will move forward with the initiative on a voluntary basis, unless it receives pushback from universities.

“Universities want to do the right thing. This is not rocket science,” he said. “Every institution is sending this information out. It’s just not easily understandable.”

Domnick said the unanswered question for NC State is how difficult it will be to produce the form logistically.

“Whenever there is an update from the Department of Education our software systems have to update accordingly,” she said.

The university contracts with a software system called PeopleSoft, which produces the current financial aid report for students and parents.

She said what the university adopts will depend on what developers bring back.

“We may be able to do certain parts but not others,” she said.

“We don’t think this is cumbersome at all. it’s actually very, very simple,” Duncan said. “I think costs could go down with just one basic way to do it.”

You can follow Will Huntsberry on Twitter @willhuntsberry

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