President's Page

President Hill Goes to Washington

By Catharine Hill
I’ve always enjoyed watching The West Wing, so I was really excited about being invited to a meeting there this summer. I was one of 10 college and university presidents who had been asked to join Vice President Joseph Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the White House, to talk about transparency by institutions of higher education when they offer students and their families financial aid. As the meeting concluded, each of us committed to providing the following information, in one easy-to-understand form, to all incoming students as part of our financial aid package beginning with the 2013–2014 school year:
  • How much one year of college will cost;
  • Financial aid options to pay this cost, with a clear differentiation between loans, which have to be repaid, and grants and scholarships;
  • Net costs after grants and scholarships;
  • Estimated monthly payments for the federal student loans the student would likely owe after graduation; and
  • Vital information about student results, including comparative information about the rates at which students enroll from one year to the next, graduate, and repay their loans without defaulting on their obligations.

Achieving this kind of transparency is an issue that concerns not only those of us working in higher education, but also those at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and in both political parties. Two weeks before our meeting, S.3244, the “Understanding the True Cost of College Act,” had been introduced in the Senate. This measure would amend the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 1965 to add disclosure requirements to institutional financial aid offer forms and make such forms mandatory.

As one of the original co-sponsors of that act, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), put it: “We need to continue moving in the direction of making students and parents savvy shoppers, so they can avoid taking on more debt than they’ll be able to repay and, ultimately, get colleges to rein in costs to compete for students. Our legislation will result in all schools having the same information, so meaningful comparisons can be made. A better understanding of financial aid is one way to address the problem of student debt on the front end, rather than after the fact.”

Whether that understanding is best addressed through a government mandate or by voluntary cooperation is a question on which reasonable people can disagree. Progress already is being made with the latter: More than 300 institutions of higher education, representing nearly two million students, have now voluntarily adopted the Department of Education’s “Financial Aid Shopping Sheet,” covering the same points that I listed above, for the 2013–2014 school year.

The bipartisan legislation, the White House meeting, and the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet all came in the wake of a great deal of publicity about the weight of the student loan debt burden carried by many college graduates. This has been a matter of concern at Vassar for some time. Indeed, it is our policy that no student should graduate from Vassar with more than $20,000 in debt due to loans from the college.

I was impressed by the range of institutions represented at the meeting, from large state university systems such as those of Maryland, Texas, and New York, to North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, a historically black college, and Miami Dade College, a system of community colleges in Florida. And I was proud that Vassar was the only liberal arts college to be invited.

As he greeted me at the meeting, Vice President Biden mentioned an opinion piece I had written earlier this year for the Washington Post, in which I said, “Properly structured incentives [from government] can help policy makers accomplish their objectives for higher education, including greater access and affordability.”

When it was my turn to speak, I felt it was important to emphasize that, while transparency is an admirable goal in and of itself, it will not be meaningful to prospective students and their families if it simply confirms that higher education is unaffordable to them. In other words, addressing the issue of transparency is only effective if the larger question of affordability is addressed at the same time. That is why increased financial aid remains a top priority for me as president of Vassar, and for the Vassar 150: World Changing campaign.