Demystifying College Costs: The University of Findlay Pioneers Transparency Practices that Show the Real Cost of a Four-Year Degree
The University of Findlay believes that the true cost of college shouldn’t be a secret or too complicated to determine. That’s why it has developed and is using the country’s first four-year degree cost calculator and other methods that are helping students and their families make more informed choices.
Higher learning institutions in the U.S. are only required to provide a calculator that estimates costs for the first year of schooling, but The University of Findlay has gone several steps further with a comprehensive and concise approach that encompasses a student’s entire college career.
Its Total Degree Cost Calculator is trademarked.
Complete transparency about the cost of a college degree, the University emphasizes, is essential to helping individuals make an investment in which they understand the actual amount, the realities of paying it back and what they get out of their investment in return, whether they choose to attend UF of not.
“As a consumer, you don’t buy something without knowing the total cost of the product. You shouldn’t invest in college without knowing the total cost either,” said Ed Recker, director of financial aid.
“At The University of Findlay, we don’t recruit freshmen. We recruit graduates,” explained Recker. “We offer outstanding academic programs that are designed to help prepare our students for jobs. We want our students to understand what their entire degree will cost, not just their first year.”
This is why, in early 2014, The University of Findlay changed the ways in which it interacts with students and their families about paying for college. The University embarked on a multi-level program that eliminated autonomy between Admissions, Financial Aid and the Business Office to become a leader in clarity about the cost of a college education.
As part of the groups’ combined efforts, the four-year calculator was launched and made available for anyone to use on the University’s website. Its intuitive design allows any student, regardless of their status (first-time freshman, transfer or graduate student), to enter information similar to what is entered on the FAFSA, select the academic program they are interested in and get a year-by-year total of what the cost of their degree will be.
The University also changed how the information is presented in students’ financial aid award letter to make the numbers easier to understand and compare to other schools. In addition, UF developed a reference tool to help explain the simplified letter at a glance. It created a series of how-to videos that explain everything from where to find the link to the FASFA, to how to check award status in the University’s Intranet.
The Financial Aid Office adopted a more accessible approach to working with students and their families. Parents and their students are now encouraged to schedule a time to meet either in person or online with a financial aid expert who will help guide them through the financial aid process.
The University’s Business Office changed how it communicates with students about payment plans and the billing cycle. Instead of sending out a basic form letter in late June each year, the Business Office developed a basic guide that explains the different options for payment plans, deadlines and other information related to student accounts using easy-to understand language and design. This same information was also communicated via email to students and their parents as well as on their website.
University leaders say the results of all of these efforts have been astounding.
“The start of the fall semester this year went much smoother than it has in the past,” said Recker. “The number of phones calls and stop-ins from confused students and parents was significantly less than in years past. And the students and families we did talk with came to us better informed and already had an understanding of what their cost was going to be.”
Anne Wells, the University’s director of student accounts echoed Recker’s experience. “Typically the first few weeks of classes mean long lines and a lot of phone calls at the Business Office,” she said. “This year, we rarely had a line at the window and much fewer phone calls from students and parents who were caught off guard or confused about their bill. I consider our efforts a real success.”
In addition to feedback from Financial Aid and the Business Office, the University has measurable results that show the effectiveness of the program.
The Total Degree Cost Calculator has had nearly 8,000 hits since being launched in March. Overall traffic to the Financial Aid web pages has increased 26 percent over last year and the Business Office web pages have seen a 10 percent hike.
The University is also enjoying its fourth consecutive semester of enrollment increases, with an 8.5 percent increase this fall. The enrollment increase was in both first-time freshmen and graduate students. At the same time, the average student loan indebtedness per graduate at UF has decreased by 24 percent in the last three years, from $33,507 in 2012 to $25,584 in 2014.
“Results like this are evidence that students and their families want more information about the total cost of their degree and help with understanding what this investment actually means to their future,” stated Rebecca Butler, vice president of enrollment management at Findlay.
The University intends to further enhance these pricing information practices, Butler explained. It will add features to the Total Degree Cost Calculator that will compare the cost to the outcomes of academic programs and make it easy to print results so that students can directly compare Findlay’s value to other universities they may be considering. Additionally, an education program, led by the Financial Aid Office, will be launched this spring that will help current students understand the process for repaying their student loans. Finally, admissions counselors are being cross trained to provide financial aid guidance for incoming students.
“This type of innovation, total transparency, and consultancy approach to working with families in their best interest positions The University of Findlay as a leader and moves UF beyond compliance to providing value, not only in academic programs, but in how we serve our families and students – with care and complete transparency,” said Butler.