November 21, 2013

Controversy Erupts Over College Price Comparison Site

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Joining dozens of other schools, Cornell has blocked — a free website that lets students compare the costs of attending thousands of colleges — from accessing its financial aid information.

The website’s CEO, Abigail Seldin, says College Abacus allows students to factor in their financial aid information to accurately compare the net price of attending different schools — something that she says low-income or first-generation college students often struggle to do with ease. Colleges have pushed back against the price-comparison tool, however, saying it runs the risk of misleading the students it is supposed to aid.

Only days after the website’s launch in October, Student Aid Services, an organization that controls the net price calculators for about 700 colleges — including Cornell — began to prevent College Abacus from accessing these calculators. In a letter sent to its clients on Oct. 28, Student Aid Services warned that College Abacus may be providing inaccurate information and charging students for information that colleges provide for free.

Currently, Cornell is the only Ivy out of thirty-three schools whose financial aid data is both managed by Student Aid Services and is still not available on the website.

According to Seldin, Student Aid Services has been blocking Cornell’s financial aid information from appearing on College Abacus and will continue to do so until it receives further instruction from the University.

A growing number of schools — including three of Student Aid Services’ clients, Yale, Washington University of St. Louis and Middlebury — have requested to have this block lifted.

According to University Spokesperson John Carberry, Cornell is trying to listen to all sides surrounding this website.

“Cornell University’s Office of Financial Aid and Student Employment is looking into the many claims and counterclaims being made by outside companies that package financial aid data, but the level of noise being generated by these various commercial businesses competing for customers makes it impossible — and, in the end, unwise — for us to try and arbitrate these many disputes,” he said.

Cornell’s Office of Admissions and Financial Aid declined to comment.

Only Fordham University, Seldin said, has publically announced that it would like Student Aid Services to restrict College Abacus from using their net price calculator. Peter Stace, vice president for enrollment at Fordham, told CNN he is concerned that College Abacus may influence students to only consider a school’s price instead of also factoring in the value and quality of education.

But College Abacus representatives say increasing transparency over the cost of education is critical. Seldin, who was inspired to create College Abacus by her mother-in-law, the president of Washington & Jefferson College, said she believes that the cost of attending a school, while just one of many variables to consider, is a huge determining factor for students.

Although in 2011, the federal government began to require schools to release financial aid information to prospective students in the form of net price calculators, such tools remain difficult to find on websites, Seldin said. This disproportionately disadvantages low-income and first-generation applicants who may not understand how exactly financial aid is awarded, she added.

“College is the largest expenditure most people make in their lives. They should know what it costs before they commit themselves to a particular institution,” she said.

Beyond the issue of price transparency, Bill Carroll, a senior lecturer in the School of Hotel Administration, said College Abacus may have greater implications for the higher education market. He said that the website mainly benefits individual students, but may pose disadvantages for colleges.

“The more information there is about prices and the easier it is to compare them, [the more likely it is that] prices [will] fall. Why? It facilitates competition among colleges,” Carroll said.

Carroll also said the value of a school should also be considered alongside its price.

“If you are a highly differentiated entity, like an Ivy League college, it is certainly a lot harder to make the comparison of what the value of that education experience is as compared to a junior college,” he said. “When you’re making comparisons, it’s not just price. … It’s what the value is.”