College is a commodity. And, as with anything you can buy or sell, consumers — students and parents, in this case — sometimes get ripped off. A new effort by the Obama administration to shed light on the cost of attendance on a school-by-school basis is a much-needed step toward minimizing the debt incurred by the nation's best and brightest. In this era of skyrocketing tuition, giving students and parents the ability to lift the veil and see exactly how much they are paying — and to plan for it — is a positive objective in a nation where new college graduates are struggling to find work. College and university presidents should commit to this plan.
The White House initiative, announced earlier this month, calls on colleges to provide several pieces of personalized and useful information as part of all incoming students' financial aid packages. The federal government already requires universities to post certain cost estimates in the form of a "net price calculator," but the new initiative takes that concept several steps further. It will also include financial aid options and estimated monthly payments on federal student loans the student would likely be paying off after graduation, among other things. Several universities, university systems and colleges — including Florida's Miami Dade College — already have pledged to provide this information starting in the 2013-14 school year.
The plan comes as President Barack Obama pushes Congress to keep interest rates on new federal subsidized student loans from doubling July 1. The importance of reducing student debt is generally accepted on both sides of the aisle, as it should be. Students who graduated in 2010 carried an average of more than $25,000 in student loan debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. In Florida, about half of all students are in debt after graduation. As they struggle to find jobs in a sputtering economy, graduates shouldn't have to be burdened with exorbitant loan debt when they could have planned for it ahead of time.
Florida's leaders in higher education should eagerly adopt this initiative. The Board of Governors has made affordability a top priority in recent years, and Florida's schools continue to be some of the best values in the country. But pledging to provide a higher level of transparency at each school in a user-friendly way could only be a good thing for students and families.
The application of transparency to the financial aid process makes perfect sense, and the fact that it can be personalized to each student is a service to budget-conscious parents. If adopted by major public and private universities, this commitment would set an encouraging standard in the world of higher education.