Months after Columbia announced efforts to ease the burden on its students' wallets through widespread financial aid reform, the federal government has enacted legislation to clean up the bureaucratic process of actually applying for aid funds.
The Higher Education Authorization Act, signed by President George W. Bush in mid-August, contains provisions written by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) requiring colleges and universities to use a standardized financial aid form that clarifies how much of their aid package students must pay back. The senator has long been known as a champion of affordable and clear acquisition of vital services, and his credit card reform has led companies to dub such disclaimers the "Schumer box."
Though the HEAA was originally passed in 1965, Schumer called for change to the cryptic aid forms, highlighting in particular the difficulties of comparing different offers.
"Parents should not need an accounting degree to fill out financial aid forms, and this legislation will both simplify that process and provide families with critical information to make better decisions as education consumers," Schumer said in a press release.
The Model Institution Financial Aid Offer Form will require colleges to list the total cost of an education—including tuition, room and board, books, and transportation—the amount of financial aid that students do not have to repay, that of available work-study assistance, and information about loans and interest rates. Under the law, schools must also disclose the net cost of attendance for the year to each student, placing all funds at the same starting point so that students can compare the bottom line.
Samantha Ritter, CC '10, said her father spent many stressful hours helping her to finish forms. "After 16 years of putting kids through school on aid, he should have been able to do it faster," she said. Ritter explained how anxious she felt choosing from the sometimes ambiguous options offered to her. "I couldn't compare," she said.
The government will also push textbook companies to remove extra unnecessary material and will set up a textbook rental initiative. "The prices of textbooks have gone off the charts in recent years, and it's been something he [Schumer] has been working on since in the Senate," Joshua Vlasto, the senator's press secretary, said.
The legislation will also mandate another "Schumer box" that will inform students of how much it will cost to repay their loans.
According to Julie Halpin, deputy press secretary for Schumer, colleges tend to implement esoteric jargon and awkward phrasing on aid applications.
"Senator Schumer was concerned ... because schools use different formats and language," she said. "He feels that the information should be provided in a comprehensive but simplified way to allow a student and their family to make an informed decision."
"There were terms on the application that even my parents didn't understand," May Wong, CC '11, said.
A 2006 congressional study revealed that the nearly 500,000 college students in upstate New York would likely owe over $6 billion in debt upon graduating.
Columbia College and the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Sciences students whose family salaries lie below $60,000 now pay no tuition since Columbia converted all "need-based" loans to grants in March. Barnard and School of General Studies students have pressed their administrators to make similar changes.