Many schools don't include the price of college in their award letters.
Others report the "net cost," which is the total cost of attendance minus the financial aid package, Kantrowitz says. But this can mislead families into thinking the college is less expensive than it actually is because the aid package can be loaded with loans.
A better figure, which some schools quote, is "net price," Kantrowitz says. That's the total cost of attendance minus grants and scholarships that don't have to be repaid. What's left is the out-of-pocket cost — loans and all — that students and parents will have to pay.
Kantrowitz says schools are accustomed to financial aid terms and so don't see jargon-laden award letters as a problem.
"Sometimes what's in the student's best interest is not perfectly aligned with the college's financial interest," Kantrowitz adds. "Colleges want more students."
Schools are concerned about finding enough aid so the student can attend college, he says, not whether the student is taking on too much debt.
Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Financial Aid Administrators, says his group supports standard terminology and having key elements in all award letters. But it doesn't want a cookie-cutter format that all must use.
"Our concern is that students are as diverse as their institutions," Draeger says. "Schools need some latitude to deliver the information that will make the most amount of sense to their students."
But without a standard format, it would be difficult for students and families to make side-by-side comparisons of aid packages from different schools.
"It seems like they want flexibility," says PIRG's Williams of colleges. "The problem is that there is too much flexibility."
What is needed is more clarity.
Samantha Durdock, a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, says that in her freshman year she needed her dad's help to understand her aid package. She wasn't sure, for example, what a "subsidized" loan meant.
She also was surprised when a scholarship she received late in the school year caused the university to take back some of her financial aid. "I was blown away they could do that," she says. "You have to read the fine print."
Durdock says her university overall does a good job of breaking down the types of aid she receives. But she adds there is room for improvement, especially to help students who are the first in their family to go to college and whose parents have no experience with financial aid.
Indeed, for students across the country, standardized award letters would be a good start.