Student-Aid Association Puts Award Letters to a Test

Consumer advocates have complained for years that financial-aid award letters are difficult for students to understand and compare, and have called for the letters to be standardized.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators opposes the idea of a standard aid-award letter, saying colleges should be free to design formats with their own would-be students in mind. But the association does say that the letters should contain standard elements.

To clarify which approaches seem to work best, the association hired the research firm JBL Associates Inc. to subject to a consumer test the federal government’s “Shopping Sheet,” a letter designed from the association’s own recommendations, and a hybrid of the two. A report with the results of that consumer testing was released on Tuesday.

“No single award-letter proposal is perfect,” the report says. The largest share of participants in the testing, 46 percent, chose the hybrid letter as the most clear and easy to understand.

Participants were also asked a set of comprehension questions to gauge how well the different formats conveyed financial-aid information. Different letters seemed to do a better job on different questions. For instance, the Shopping Sheet appeared to provide the clearest information on the total cost of attendance, and the hybrid letter seemed clearest in displaying the total amount of grant and scholarship aid.

Based on the findings, the association made the following recommendations:

  • Require additional consumer testing.
  • Provide a glossary of standardized terminology.
  • Give colleges flexibility to format core elements.
  • Reassess how and when consumer information is needed and useful.
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