Maze Of College Costs And Aid Programs Trap Some Families

Career College Central summary:

  • In the last 20 years, the average burden for a four-year college graduate in the U.S. has gone from about $9,000 to nearly $30,000 today. The percentage of students carrying debt has shot up from less than half to nearly 70 percent these days. Department of Education data show that three quarters of American undergrads have some amount of "unmet financial need" they have to cover either with loans, a job while enrolled or both.
  • Pell Grants are the largest federal aid program aimed mainly at low-income students. Even after taking into account federal loans and work-study, about 86 percent of Pell recipients had nearly $9,000 in "unmet need" on average per year.
  • Recent efforts to simplify and clarify the aid process include making a family's federal tax data easier to access and requiring "net price calculators" on college all websites. But critics say those change don't go nearly far enough. The daunting, complex aid process can be even more so for low-income and first-generation-to-college families, says Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. Navigating that tangled forest takes effort, time and savvy that some families don't have. "It is a huge problem that it is so hard to get the information that you need," Baum says. "The information is there. It's just too complicated, and people need personal help. So if you're lucky, you have a good high school counselor. There are many websites out there that can be helpful. So it's not so much that we need more information — we need better information and we need to get that information to people."
  • To apply for federal financial aid, families have to embrace the dreaded FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Families have to enter income, assets, taxes and other information. Anyone who's ever filled one out knows the FAFSA is about as much fun as doing your taxes. Colleges have been asking students and families to cover more of the cost, Asher says, which are rising faster than family income or available grant aid. So more students — undergraduate and graduate — are borrowing ever more amounts to fill that gap.

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NPR

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