Watch Out for Misleading College Financial Aid Letters

In the spring, enticing financial aid letters from colleges will start arriving in high school seniors’ mailboxes. Unfortunately, most of them are misleading.

The letters offering financial aid packages are supposed to help families who are making major financial decisions. But the vast majority of them are hiding the true cost of college, According to a newly released government report.

Here’s how it works: If you get accepted to a college or university (or if one of your offspring gets accepted), that school will send you a letter spelling out what financial aid you’re eligible for — typically a mix of student loans, grants, scholarships and work-study arrangements.

This is supposed to help you and your family decide whether you can afford to go to that school. However, too many of these letters avoid saying how much you’d really be spending to go there, According to a report by the Government Accountability Officea nonpartisan congressional agency that serves as the government’s primary watchdog.

“Most colleges are not following best practices for providing clear and standard information in their financial aid offers,” the GAO report said. “Colleges should estimate the net price — how much a student will pay to attend that college… but about 91% of colleges understate or don’t include the net price in their offers.”

So, what should you do with this information? We have some ideas.

What to Know About College Financial Aid Letters

Misleading financial aid letters have gotten students to enroll in schools they can’t afford, causing them to rack up unnecessary debt and sometimes even drop out of schools.

Nearly a quarter of all colleges include no information whatsoever about costs in their financial aid offer letters. And even if a college tells you how much tuition and housing cost there, too often they’ll skip over the out-of-pocket costs of books , transportation and various personal expenses, the GAO…

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