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College Board: Families Need Earlier Education About Costs

Students need information earlier in their education careers about college costs and available grants and loans, as well as encouragement to save, a study commissioned by the College Board released today reveals.

Cracking the Student Aid Code, based on focus-group and survey research of about 2,250 parents and students nationwide, found that just 46 percent of parents knew the cost to attend a public college in their home state.

Knowing about the Pell Grant program depended on level of education and ethnicity. While 82 percent of African-Americans and 81 percent of Caucasians said they knew about the program, just 44 percent of Latino parents did. About 91 percent of parents with a bachelor's degree were aware of Pell Grants, 85 percent of parents with an associate's degree, and 62 percent of parents with a high school education or less, the survey found.

While most parents and students understood the importance of college, this lack of information is a barrier that is difficult for many families to overcome, the survey concluded.

Part of the answer is working with the K-12 system, said Kathie Little, senior adviser for student-aid policy for the College Board.

"There is a lot of misinformation and lack of information from students and parents when they think about college in their future," said Little. "We need to start much earlier in getting out information to students and parents about the cost of college, federal and state aid, and academic preparation."

The survey was based on recommendations by the College Board's Rethinking Student Aid project in 2008. One idea to reach out to younger families as early as a child's birth: Put a check-off box on IRS forms to request customized information about paying for college to be sent out annually, said Little. It would include average costs of college and whether the family would qualify for loans, grants, or tax benefits. This proposal was supported by 89 percent of parents, 92 percent of college students in the survey.

Another approach is to work with middle schools to get the college process going early. The College Board is piloting a program in North Carolina to provide workshops and materials to parents about college costs and the importance of taking the right preparatory classes.

High school teachers and counselors can also help in the effort by talking up financial-aid programs and the importance of saving early for college, said Little. The College Board is considering ways to weave information about college readiness into classes.

The survey released today shows a great reluctance to borrow money for college. It could be that parents had a bad experience with borrowing money, uncertainty about succeeding in college and being able to pay it back, or being from a low-income family, said Little. But when parents learned about income-based repayment programs that exist today, they were more comfortable about the idea as an option since there is a safety net.

To get students' perspective on how to make the financial-aid process less complicated, the College Board partnered with MTV in the Get Schooled College Affordability Challenge. Current and aspiring college students were invited to imagine innovative digital tools to simplify the financial-aid process. At a briefing in Washington today, three finalists will be announced from submissions by hundreds of students across the country.

The finalists include:

-Larissa Simpson, a New York University graduate student, entered an interactive game that helps students navigate the process of securing grants, scholarships, and loans to finance their education using a personalized avatar that guides them through each stage of the process.

-Devin Valencia, a recent graduate of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, proposed an interactive Facebook application with an intuitive, step-by-step guide on how to fill out the application for federal financial aid and other grants, scholarships, and loans.

-Dekunle Somade, a senior at the University of Maryland, entered an online-platform that organizes financial-aid and admissions information, as well as a new communications channel between institutional-aid offices and students to track users' progress toward securing funding.

Each finalist will work with an innovation firm for two weeks to develop his or her project, and a winner will be announced this spring.


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