Report calls on Congress to require colleges to provide full cost in financial aid offers

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Applying for college can be overwhelming for any student and figuring out how to pay for it is often one of the biggest financial decisions a student will make in their lifetime.

But determining the actual out of pocket cost isn’t always so clear.

“Many costs, it’s not disclosed to the students until the last minute, and I think transparency is very important for students to make smart decisions,” said one Georgetown University Law student who spoke with our Washington News Bureau.

Now a new watchdog report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals around 91 percent of colleges either don’t provide the net cost or understate it in the financial aid offer to potential incoming students.

Some schools aren’t factoring in costs that are in addition to tuition like housing, meals and books.

“Doing this can make a college appear less expensive than it is,” the report said.

“This makes it very difficult to figure out if they can even afford to go to college or to comparison shop to figure out which college is most affordable for them,” said Melissa Emrey-Arras, a Director of Higher Education Issues at GAO.

The report points out that federal law currently does not require colleges to include clear or standard information in the financial aid offers.

The federal government does provide guidance for best practices, but the report says that’s often not being followed.

“There actually may be an incentive for colleges not to,” said Emrey-Arras. “If a college can make itself look cheaper, they may be able to enroll more students. But that’s not fair to students and their families.”

Emrey-Arras said there are several proposals now under consideration in Congress aimed at requiring colleges to be more transparent about the real total cost.

“Further Congressional action would be necessary to ensure that all students receive the information they need in their financial aid offers to make informed education and financial choices,” the report said.