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A Risk Worth Taking

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Americans are increasingly aware of the rising cost of a college degree, but there is little clarity about how students and their parents can manage those costs. The result is too much student debt. Together, leaders in higher education can do something about this problem before it hits crisis proportion. It's time we get started.

President Obama and his administration want to help. By next fall, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau will have developed a Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, which colleges can adopt to provide information on what one year of college at their institution costs, the financial aid packages available for students, and estimated monthly payments, as well as a snapshot of performance measures such as the graduation, retention, and loan-default rates of their students. All to be available in one place and in one format, so that students can easily compare one college to another.

But for it to work, we must all make the commitment. The tool can only be as useful as the number of institutions willing to employ it. Yes, we know the nuance: possible sticker shock, fear that the degree may not yield future financial benefit. There may even be concern that institutional distinctiveness might get blurred by the common format of the shopping sheet.

Frankly, we need to take these risks to better serve our primary customer -- the student.

Students should be more conscious of the obligations they are about to take on, and if we are not comfortable with what our institutions are offering and at what cost, it is on us to make that change. In New York, that has meant implementing a rational tuition policy, committing to share services among our 64 campuses, partnering with K-12 to reduce the need for remediation, and pledging to shift administrative costs to academic instruction, among other measures. These do not have to be unique to the State University of New York -- they can be adopted everywhere, with a shared commitment from government like we have from Governor Andrew Cuomo and our state legislature.

And that's just the point -- no one entity alone can change the face of American higher education. We can all agree that colleges and universities must do more to be transparent and to curb costs. States must generate a significant and reliable stream of funding for higher education. Congress must find a way to prevent student loan interest rates from doubling. And President Obama must continue to keep us all on task, by introducing programs like Race to the Top for higher education that create additional incentives for collaboration among all those with a stake in the improvement of our nation's education pipeline.

The truth is, a college education is not cheap. It's expensive to get a meaningful degree, and students deserve to know what that entails before they enroll. Outlining these costs -- making them easy to find and to understand -- is the right thing to do. The shopping sheet is likely long overdue. If it had been in place a decade ago, perhaps student loan debt wouldn't have surpassed credit card debt.

Rising college costs, sticker shock, and excessive student debt may be a large part of how higher education has done business up to this point. But there is no place for this in our future. Already, campuses are signing on to offer the Shopping Sheet to their students. Together, college and university leaders can make 100 percent buy in a reality, meaning 100 percent transparency, and an immeasurable win for our students.