Franken bill aims to help clarify college costs

Make this user-friendly (401(K)2013 via Flickr)

For those following politics and the cost of college, here’s an announcement I just got about a proposed Net Price Calculator Improvement Act.

(Here’s what MPR colleague Tim Post has written about Net Price Calculators.)

The meat of the announcement is toward the bottom in bold:

Sens. Franken, Grassley Introduce New Bipartisan Bill to Give Students a Better Estimate of College Costs Before Applying

Senators’ Legislation Would Make Calculators that Compare the Cost of College More User-Friendly

WASHINGTON, D.C. [05/01/14]—With college growing increasingly unaffordable and student loan debt continuing to rise, U.S. Sens. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) have introduced a bipartisan bill to give students and families a better estimate of college costs before they apply for schools. The bill would also help ensure that prospective students don’t fail to apply to certain schools that they think are too expensive.

The legislation would improve the effectiveness of and access to net price calculators (NPCs)—tools that provide students with early, individualized estimates of higher education costs and financial aid figures before they decide where to apply—by requiring schools to put their calculators on webpages where students and families are likely to look for cost and admissions information. The Net Price Calculator Improvement Act of 2014 would also authorize the Department of Education to develop a “universal calculator” that lets students answer a standard set of financial and academic questions to get cost estimates from many schools so they can better compare costs across institutions.

“Minnesotans are finding it more and more difficult to pay for college, and that’s why I’m working so hard on this issue,” said Sen. Franken. “Part of the problem is that students often don’t have a clear picture of how much their education is going to actually cost them, and often don’t fully understand what schools they can and cannot afford. Our bipartisan bill will provide students and their families with a better estimate of what they will need to earn, borrow, or save to attend the best school for them.”

“College sticker prices don’t mean much and a lot of sticker shock occurs later as a result,” said Sen Grassley. “It’s almost impossible for students to compare college costs until they have applied and received their financial aid award letter. By then, they will have narrowed their options and it might be too late to start over. If students and parents have more information on college costs early on when shopping for colleges, they’ll be able to use that information to comparison-shop. The more information available, the more there will be price competition that will help keep tuition costs down.”

For years, Sens. Franken and Grassley have worked together to tackle college affordability. In addition to the legislation introduced today, the two also have a bill—called the Understanding the Trust Cost of College Act—that would create a universal financial aid form to help students understand exactly what college will cost.

Specifically, the Net Price Calculator Improvement Act would do the following:

  • Help increase students’ access to net price calculators by requiring institutions to place their calculators on webpages where students and families are likely to look for cost and admissions information—such as the financial aid or tuition and fees page.
  • Improve comparability between schools by requiring that “net price” be the most visually prominent figure on the results screen.
  • Strengthen information for veteran students by requiring that calculators indicate on the results screen that prospective students may qualify for veteran benefits and include a link to direct eligible students to such benefits.
  • Authorize the Department of Education to develop a “universal calculator” that would enable students to answer one set of financial and academic questions in order to generate a list of comparable net price estimates for multiple institutions of higher education.
  • Require the Department of Education to submit a report on the steps the Department has taken to raise awareness of NPCs among prospective students and families, particularly those in high school and middle school, and students from low-income families.

You can read a summary of the bill here.

Sen. Franken is a strong advocate of making college more affordable for students and their families. In addition to his bills with Sen. Grassley, he also helped lead the introduction of the Affordable College Textbook Act to combat the rising expense of textbooks and supplies. He’s hosted a series of College Affordability Roundtables around Minnesota to hear directly from students, families, and higher education officials on what can be done to improve higher education. And for the third year, he’s sending his staff out into communities statewide to hold College Affordability Resource Nights. You can find dates and locations here.

In addition to working with Sen. Franken on the Understanding the True Cost of College Act, Sen. Grassley worked through the Finance Committee, with jurisdiction over tax policy, to help hold colleges accountable for their significant tax exemptions by pressing well-funded colleges to spend more of their endowments on student aid. He also has encouraged colleges to cut perks and salaries in the administrative suite, such as loans for vacation homes to executives and faculty at New York University. Sen. Grassley also led the fight to remove the 60-payment limit on the student loan interest deduction. Congress eliminated the 60-day payment limit in 2001. The expanded policy since became permanent law.