What You Don’t Know About Financial Aid (but Should)

Richard Perez-Pena:

Marilyn Ferreira has solved her share of financial puzzles — running a business, buying a home and arranging a mortgage, raising six children as a single mother. But none of that compared to the challenge of understanding the cost of sending her brood to college.

She and her daughter Kelsey are in the thick of it now, weighing Kelsey’s admissions and financial aid offers from various colleges before the May 1 deadline, trying to make meaningful comparisons and just hoping they aren’t blindsided by something they missed. She has an important advantage in making sense of the terminology and the numbers: a lot of experience, with two sons now in college and a daughter already graduated.

“But it’s still confusing to me, probably the most confusing thing I’ve had to deal with,” said Ms. Ferreira, 48, a dance instructor who lives midway between Boston and Providence, R.I. “I couldn’t have figured it out on my own the first time, and I’m still not sure I could.”

It becomes clear over a long conversation that she does not understand how colleges define basic, crucial terms like “need,” “aid” or “need-blind admission,” and she does not know that those definitions vary from place to place. Her confusion is distressingly common, as demonstrated in studies, surveys and interviews with students and parents.

An array of policy analysts from think tanks to the White House say things should change. “It’s a ridiculously complicated system, if you can even call it a system, and a lot of people don’t get it,” said Sandy Baum, a research professor at George Washington University’s graduate education school, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and a leading expert on college pricing. “If you put five aid offers from different colleges together, they’re all different, and it’s very, very difficult to compare. That problem could be solved.”

Related: Questions About Financial Aid?