Lifting a Taboo about Paying for College

Washington -- Richard Kahlenberg has a fine commentary over at the Chronicle of Higher Education about how students are slowly lifting the taboo of discussing what they pay for college.

Part of the reason for the taboo is that colleges themselves do not want their students to know who pays what. Many colleges do not allow students and their families to see how net price is determined behind the curtains of their student financial aid offices. It is deemed proprietary information.

But another reason is that the U.S. Department of Education does not enforce the Student Right to Know Act. This law requires colleges that participate in federal student aid programs to divulge the methods by which financial aid is distributed and the criteria for determining the amount of a student's awards. It applies to all aid, not just federal aid.

If this law were enforced, many bad practices in college financial aid offices would come to an end, as they could not stand up under public scrutiny. The overall effect of enforcing the law would be good for colleges. Many now are trapped in practices that they cannot change by themselves for fear of unilaterally disarming against other colleges.

About fifteen years ago, when I was working in the Department of Education's Office of Legislation, I had a call from George Conant of the House Republican staff. He was working on re-authorization of the Higher Education Act and wanted new and stronger provisions in the law to provide more transparency in the setting of net price and the awarding of financial aid. He and I went through the existing law and regulations and determined that transparency was already required; making it a reality was a matter of enforcement. He drafted instead some language requiring the Department to do a study of how federal aid was packaged (which the Department never did).

There is currently a lot of talk from the President on down about the need for transparency. There is considerable bipartisan agreement on the need for more of it. A good start would be for the Department of Education to enforce what is already on the books.