Legislation needed to improve higher education cost transparency

We've all heard Horace Mann's quote about education being the great equalizer, and we've seen the evidence that education is the best pathway out of poverty. With that said, paying for college today has become a complex maze with the potential to stop low and moderate income students and families in their tracks before a college application is ever submitted.

The focus at Central Scholarship since our founding in 1924 has been on college affordability and price transparency. Our state needs this focus now more than ever, with the annual costs of attendance (tuition, fees, room, board, books, transportation and other personal expenses) ranging from $20,000 to $30,000 at Maryland public institutions such as Frostburg University, Salisbury University and the University of Maryland, and $50,000 to, in some cases, over $60,000 at Maryland private institutions such as Goucher College, Mount St. Mary's University and Washington College.


Maryland families, early in the college search and application process, must have a clear understanding of how much college will cost. They must know the difference between the sticker price and the bottom line; between grants, which are gifts, and loans, which must be repaid later; and the future consequences of accumulating student debt at varied interest rates.

We were pleased in 2014, when both houses of the Maryland General Assembly unanimously passed, and Gov. Martin O'Malley signed into law, the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, making Maryland only the second state to require that public colleges and universities and community colleges provide specific information on the cost of higher education to all first-time, full-time freshmen. A great leap toward transparency, this law requires Maryland public institutions to send students their institutional financial aid awards letter at the same time the student receives their federal financial aid awards notification. This law also helps families compare and understand financial aid offers, distinguish between grants, loans and work study, and compare offers from multiple institutions.


Also in the interest of transparency, the Federal Higher Education Act of 2008 required colleges nationwide to post on their institutional websites a net price calculator to provide personalized cost and financial aid information based on a prospective student's family circumstances so that students can estimate their out of pocket cost before they apply. We fully support net price calculators and their informational benefits to students and families; however, two Central Scholarship colleagues and I, with five degrees among us, recently pulled up net price calculators and in some cases struggled to get net price information for a fictional low income student at various public and private institutions. Some of the calculators we tested were difficult to find, use and compare. Some contained broken links, or forced students to register, while others allowed students to log in as a guest. Some were complex and took lots of time to complete, requesting many details, for example information from most recent student and parent income tax returns, earnings statements, bank statements and investment account statements.

In the end, we often received outdated institutional price information, from as far back as the 2010-2011 academic year. This exercise in frustration more often created obstacles and did not yield the expected outcome for us, nor would it be helpful to many Maryland families of low or moderate income.

Not long after, we were delighted to learn that a federal bi-partisan bill proposing a Net Price Calculator Improvement Act of 2014 was introduced in the House of Representatives by Maryland U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings and in the Senate by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken. The intent of this bill was to simplify net price calculators and require current and consistent data in a user friendly format in the appropriate location on the school website with no broken links. Pretty much a "no-brainer." While the House of Representatives bill passed as part of the larger Strengthening Transparency in Higher Education Act, the Senate bill failed and must be reintroduced in 2015.

With the 114th Congress now in session, we hope that Senator Franken will reintroduce, and the Senate will pass, this bi-partisan bill. However, should this federal legislation not become a reality any time soon, we urge the Maryland General Assembly and incoming Gov. Larry Hogan to again take the lead in the interest of transparency for Maryland students and families and support such a bill here in Maryland. As Maryland led in 2014 with the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet statewide legislation, let's see Maryland lead again, strengthening the net price calculator requirements.

Michele Waxman Johnson is vice president of Central Scholarship. Her email is