I’m going to keep yesterday’s post up another day because the College Board’s new consumer site – BigFuture – was experiencing difficulty staying online Tuesday. I had trouble accessing the site and you probably did too.
Since I wrote the post below, I received a response from the College Board that promised to improve its Paying for College section. Here is part of the College Board’s response:
We’re committed to continuously improving BigFuture to make it an even more helpful resource, and we have plans to roll out new and enhanced features over the coming months.
You can read the rest of the note by scrolling all the way down to the comment section.
In the meantime, I thought of another search feature that BigFuture should include — graduation rates. What’s more costly than staying in college for five or six years? One sure-fire way to reduce costs is to earn a diploma in the traditional four years.
Once you’ve had a chance to check out BigFuture, I’d love to hear what you think. Just use the comment box below.
I got a sneak peek of the site on Monday from College Board officials and it’s obvious that the organization has invested a ton of time and money into the makeover. The new site is attractive and packed with tools and sprinkled with inspirational videos from students, college and high school counselors, as well as college admission and financial aid officers from mostly elite universities. The admirable aim of the ambitious site is to make the process of getting into college and paying the tab less stressful.
The Wrong Search Criteria
Unfortunately, I think the College Board missed an opportunity to make BigFuture much more valuable. Today I want to focus on the site’s financial aid section, which I’d argue is the site’s weakest link. I find this a shame because paying for college arguably generates the most anxiety, frustration and financial pain for families.
I have a lot of issues with the financial aid part of the site beginning with the college search engine that parents and students can use to hunt for schools.
If you click on the Paying link when searching for schools, you will find the following criteria for locating schools:
What’s Missing Here?
Do you see anything wrong with the above categories?
For starters, using the Tuition & Fees criterion you can only search for a school based on sticker price. Sticker price, however, is irrelevant most of the time. In fact, two-thirds of college students who attend state or public universities receive some type of grant that will reduce the price. About 88% of students attending private colleges and universities receive a price break. So why in the world would you require families to use price tag to find colleges?
I also am puzzled by the Financial Aid Availability criteria, which I believe families will find perplexing. Most need-based financial aid is given automatically when a student applies to a school and so is most non-need-based aid, which is the only type rich students qualify for. Teenagers don’t have to check a box on these sorts of categories when applying to schools.
I also was surprised to see the third search criterion — Work Study Programs. Schools that participate in the federal financial aid program routinely offer work-study programs so I’m not sure why that needs to be a category. And of course, the fourth search category is irrelevant to American students.
Better Ways to Hunt for Affordable Schools
I would have liked to see search criteria that are actually meaningful. It would be great if the College Board allowed families to find schools based on these sorts of search criteria:
- College net prices. (What you pay after the typical grants are subtracted.)
- Percentage of financial need that a school typically meets. (The higher the number the better).
- The percentage of students who get their full financial need met. (The higher the percentage the better.)
- College indebtedness. (What schools graduate students with the lowest debt vs. crushing debt.)
Where’s the Beef?
The videos and articles on financial aid that you will see on BigFuture provide some helpful information, but only on an extremely basic level. For instance, you’ll see videos explaining that grants are free money and another that shares that you need to apply for financial aid to qualify for assistance.
While the financial experts captured on video repeatedly urge families not to get too hung up about sticker prices, the site doesn’t provide enough instruction to empower visitors to become educated consumers. To find affordable schools, families require a tremendous amount of help and a lot of detailed step-by-step instruction on a variety of financial topics that you won’t find on the site.
What’s ironic is that the College Board possesses lots of data that could be shared in a user friendly way that would allow families to make smarter decisions as they look for schools that are financial fits. I’ve certainly used College Board statistics countless times in my blog posts, as well as in the upcoming second edition of my book, The College Solution. Here are two examples from my college blog that illustrate what you can do with statistics that the College Board gathers every year from schools:
Drawbacks of a Membership Organization?
Myra Smith, the College Board’s executive director of Financial Aid Services explained to me that the College Board has provided a link to each school’s net price calculator on the site, which can provide a family with a personalized estimate of what a particular college will cost. That is certainly valuable and I’m glad that the College Board has done that, but I don’t think that should be an excuse for not providing more substantive financial information on its site.
So why isn’t the financial aid section of the College Board’s Big Future as helpful as it could be? Here is my guess: the College Board is a membership organization made up of higher-ed institutions. If the College Board lays out exactly how to separate schools with lousy aid from those who do an admirable job, some institutions are going to be furious. This political reality is unfortunate because if anybody has the resources and brand name to truly educate families, it’s the College Board.
Myra Smith suggested that there will be some changes made to the financial aid information in the future so maybe I’m being too pessimistic and cynical. I hope I am.
What Do You Think?
I will share more about BigFuture later, but I’d appreciate hearing what you think about the College Board’s BigFuture. I’d love for you to visit the new site and share your impressions in the comment box below.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of the second edition of The College Solution, which is now available for preorders.