At College-Cost Summit, Education Dept. Official Says More Transparency to Come

December 05, 2012

With the cost of college a matter of much public discussion, the federal government is asserting its commitment to consumer information, as a high-ranking Education Department official did on Wednesday at a summit organized by the College Savings Foundation.

David A. Bergeron, the department's acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education, highlighted several recent efforts to promote transparency and help students and families make decisions on colleges. And he hinted at more efforts to come.

For now, Mr. Bergeron said, the department has focused on financial-counseling tools, such as net-price calculators and the College Scorecard, which, now in an early version, displays institutions' net prices, graduation rates, and average student-loan debts. The Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, which the department has encouraged but not required colleges to send to successful applicants, lays out each student's total cost of attendance, options for federal aid, and possible monthly loan payments, Mr. Bergeron explained.

More tools, he said, were in the works for this spring. "When we're done, there will be no reason for anyone ever to default on their loan," Mr. Bergeron said. "We're getting pretty close."

He also discussed the department's current loan-repayment options, including income-based and income-contingent plans. Not many borrowers take advantage of those programs, and advocacy groups have recently called for automatic or opt-out entry.

Despite recent federal attention to college costs, many stakeholders remain concerned. Some groups have called for an overhaul of the federal financial-aid system and better online tools for students and families. In the coming weeks, more than a dozen organizations will release their contributions to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project.

The summit on Wednesday also featured discussions of 529 college-savings plans. One participant asked if more-convenient loan-repayment options might give families an incentive to borrow instead of saving as a means of paying for college.

Art Hauptman, a policy consultant, expressed his worry over a growing reliance on loans as he presented a paper, "Winning the Race: Making College More Affordable, Accessible, and Attainable."

"There's more inclination to borrow," Mr. Hauptman said, "because repayment is safer."

A system that relies so much on debt is unsustainable, he said, calling for policy reform from both sides of the aisle.