Striking Findings on Award Letter Inconsistency and Confusion

By MorraLee Keller, Director of Technical Assistance

We are in the midst of award letter season, and some things never change. Award letter formats are not consistent, they do not contain the same information, and many students and families find them confusing. Probably the most valuable service provided by access advisors is going over award letters with students and families to help them understand what is being offered and what the cost to the family is likely to be.

NCAN would like to applaud our member uAspire and New America for their team effort to review more than 11,000 award letters from 900 colleges, representing 6,023 students, of whom 76 percent were Pell Grant recipients. This comprehensive review helped identify issues with award letters.

uAspire Chief Policy Officer Laura Keane testified last month at a Senate HELP Committee hearing about this topic. Some of the top findings of the joint review made an impression:

  • More than one-third of the award letters did not have any college cost information on the same page where the financial aid awards were listed.
  • Of those that included costs, half only included direct cost information and made no mention of the indirect expenses.
  • Less than one-third of the letters split out the different types of aid such as grants, loans or scholarships to help the student understand gift aid versus that needing to be repaid.
  • More than 450 award letters offered “Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans,” and there 143 unique other titles used for this program among the letters.
  • Only about 40 percent of the letters demonstrated some type of calculation to show any remaining costs after aid.
  • Award letters are filled with jargon.
  • PLUS loans are often listed as student aid.

For those who have counseled families through this process, the above findings will affirm what you already knew. Keane suggested that institutions should at least have to list federal aid programs uniformly to help reduce the confusion. uAspire and New America have an additional report coming soon that we will share widely.