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Consumer Information Requirements: What Is Left to Say?

Colleges are required to disclose a lot of information to families. In a guest post today, Cathy Simoneaux tells us which pieces of information she thinks students and parents should pay special attention to. Ms. Simoneaux, director of the office of scholarships and financial aid at Loyola University New Orleans, presented on this topic at a session of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators conference on Monday.

When someone asked me earlier this year if I would be willing to present a session at the annual Nasfaa conference on the mandatory consumer-information requirements outlined in the Higher Education Opportunity Act, my first reaction was: “What else is there left to say?” After all, the requirements became effective in 2010, and we are now halfway through 2012.

While the requirements are a good idea in theory, families can be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information we now give to them.

Don’t get me wrong. I am the daughter of a retired librarian and the sister of a schoolteacher. I think making information available to families is a wonderful idea. But I also do lots of presentations at metro-area high schools each year. You can always tell the first-time parents in the crowd, as you can see the looks on their faces start to glaze over after about 20 minutes. These are the parents who just look totally overwhelmed by the process and who should focus on the essential information they need to help their children make wise choices.

My youngest niece is leaving her small town in New Hampshire to attend college in Philadelphia at the end of August, so I started thinking about all this from her perspective. Of all the 40-plus disclosures that we are required to make, which are the most important for the average freshman family?

Here are the main topics I think families need to understand:

  1. Emergency Information: Schools need to be able to tell students what they need to do in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency. This includes having a way to contact both students and their parents. Families need to know where this information is posted on the university’s Web site and annually review it so they know what steps they can take to protect themselves. Schools also have to have a way to contact and support any student with a physical disability who cannot be reached through normal channels.
  2. Crime, Safety, and Fire Information: Families may have incorrect assumptions about campus safety issues. New Orleans, like every major urban city, struggles with a crime problem. However, the university area (we are literally right next door to Tulane University) is one of the safest neighborhoods in town due to the hard work of the Loyola and Tulane police departments working with the officers assigned to the New Orleans Police Department’s 2nd District. Students need to take advantage of the resources offered to help them stay safe.  Information about basic services offered at Loyola are posted here.
  3. Families should understand the cost of attendance for the year and what is and is not covered by financial aid.
  4. Before students begin the school year, families should have a plan to cover any outstanding charges that will not be covered by financial aid. Virtually all schools will require you to have your fall bill paid in full before you start the spring semester. If you cannot pay what you owe, you normally will not be permitted to stay in school.
  5. If students have to borrow student loans, they should borrow smart and remember they have to repay loans with all accrued interest. Families should check out the free calculators on the Web that will illustrate not only projected monthly payments but the projected salary a borrower would need to be able to make those payments. Our families have been using Mapping Your Future’s Debt/ Salary Wizard. We hope that the Department of Education’s new online Financial Awareness Counseling Tool will also be user-friendly for families.
  6. Students should know the academic requirements for renewing all their grants and loans. Financial aid programs all have “satisfactory academic progress” standards that recipients must meet to continue to receive aid. Families should know that costs generally rise every year. Institutional aid may not increase with tuition increases.

Students need to be aware and take advantage of all of the support services available on campus if they experience any academic, personal, or medical issues. We want our families to have the information they need to make good choices. Our biggest challenge is presenting these disclosures in a format that enables families to find the information they need to make important decisions.

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