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College Cost Shopping Sheet Aims To Ease School Comparison

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COLLEGE COST SHOPPING SHEET
Vice President Joe Biden has met with groups of students and university presidents to discuss the cost of college. | AP

College shopping is about to get a whole lot easier -- well, for potential students at some schools.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration will reveal its new "shopping sheet," a guide of university costs and graduation rates designed to make college information more transparent for students and their families. But compliance is voluntary, raising the question of whether the most expensive and least productive universities will participate.

"If it were mandatory, this would be huge for students," said Kate Tromble, legislative director for the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonpartisan education advocacy group. "In the voluntary realm, it will be incumbent on schools to step up and do the right thing. It hinges on how many schools sign up."

While U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan conceded on a Monday call with reporters that "there are clearly no sanctions" associated with the measures, he said he thinks "the overwhelming majority, if not all universities will do the right thing."

The tool, created by the U.S. Education Department and the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is designed to help aspiring college students compare financial aid offerings and college costs between different schools. The shopping sheet would include, for each student, total costs of enrollment broken down into tuition, housing, books and transportation; grants and scholarships broken down by type; the school's overall graduation, loan default, and median borrowing rates, in addition to loan options.

Currently, universities send students wildly different financial aid letters that use different terms to describe the same things. "That makes trying to figure out how much college actually costs extremely difficult, and it makes comparisons ... almost impossible," Duncan said. "This is frankly not rocket science, it's what I call a triumph of common sense."

"We've heard from many student loan borrowers who say that they don't simply understand what they sign up for," said Richard Cordray, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Duncan and Cordray noted that an April executive order makes filling out the shopping list compulsory for all universities serving students with military benefits -- but only for for those students.

The Obama administration has focused on college affordability and completion, amping up the rhetoric of college attendance as a middle-class issue as Obama's re-election campaign intensifies. In Obama's State of the Union address this year, he proposed a $1 billion Race to the Top competition to reward colleges for controlling costs; a First in the World competition to spur innovation among colleges in boosting student degree-completion; and, more controversially, tying campus-based aid to measures such as graduation rates. (Obama has been unable to secure congressional funding for Race to the Top and only received $39 million for First in the World.) In a speech shortly afterward the State of the Union speech at the University of Michigan, Obama elaborated on those plans, including several transparency measures, such as the shopping sheet.

But its efficacy, Tromble said, will depend on which schools sign on. (Only an act of Congress could make compliance mandatory.)

Queries to a sprinkling of universities yielded mixed responses. "We appreciate the goals of this initiative, though our position is that no single formulaic system can provide an accurate reflection of what individual institutions offer students," said Martin Mbugua, a spokesman for Princeton University. "Much of the information about Princeton that would be in the scorecard has been publicly available in various ways over the years."

New York City's Columbia University is uncommitted. "We look forward to receiving further guidance from the Department of Education and the Obama Administration," Mercy Goodnow Smith, Columbia's financial aid director, said in an email. "We do not have enough information to respond regarding Columbia's commitment at this time. However, we are dedicated to timely and transparent consumer information for all students and families."

The State University of New York, though, a large public university system, is heralding the Obama administration's stab at making colleges more up front about their costs.

A bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) in May would require all universities to adapt universal financial aid letters similar to the shopping sheet and add further details in categories such as default rates. “The White House introduction of a shopping sheet, also known as a universal financial aid award letter, is a step in the right direction," Franken said in a statement to The Huffington Post. "But unless a universal financial aid award form is made mandatory, colleges will still be able to use whatever form they want, and families won’t be able to compare apples to apples when evaluating financial aid offers. The legislation I introduced in May would solve that problem.”

Duncan didn't say whether he would pursue such legislation. "We'll see where that goes," he said, regarding the voluntary letters. "There's tremendous interest in this. We'll move as far as we can on a voluntary basis and see where we'll net out."

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