What's in Cheez Whiz anyways? Image licensed CC by Danielle Scott.
Jane recently found out she’s diabetic. To control her insulin levels, she’ll need to pay close attention to her carbohydrate intake. She knows she’ll have to cut down on sugar-laden desserts, but what about her daily bowl of Total? And the raisins and pretzels she eats as an afternoon snack? Twenty-five years ago, Jane would have had difficulty comparing and choosing among the food in her pantry. But now, thanks to the passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, all she has to do is consult the food labels to make an informed decision about what to eat. Even though standardized nutrition labels may seem ubiquitous today, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had to battle against the food lobby, which relentlessly tried to prevent even the most basic of disclosures, to get this legislation through Congress.
Today, we’re witnessing a similar struggle play out in higher education. The Department of Education announced last week that it wants to provide better, simplified, and consistent information to students about their financial aid packages. They released a model financial aid award letter, known as the “Shopping Sheet,” that would present financial aid packages to students in a standardized way—separating grants from loans, and clearly listing a student’s net price. This would help students understand how much they will pay out-of-pocket and in loans, and also help them compare financial aid packages among institutions. (More on the necesity of the Shopping Sheet here and here).
Unlike the FDA, the Department isn’t requiring schools to use the form—it’s voluntary. But that hasn’t stopped the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), the food lobby in this case, from rallying against it. Immediately following the release of the Shopping Sheet, the president of NASFAA, Justin Draeger, released the following statement:
We appreciate that the Department of Education incorporated the recommendations of financial aid administrators when revising the financial aid Shopping Sheet. While we are pleased that institutions are not required to adopt [it], we remain concerned with the inflexible standardization… Institutions need flexibility to design a financial aid award letter that best meets the needs of their unique student populations.
So the Department incorporated many of NASFAA’s recommendations and has also made it voluntary, but NASFAA is still upset? Imagine what a nutrition label on Cheez-Whiz would look like if Kraft were given the “flexiblity” to best meet the needs of their unique customer populations. It’s doubtful that Kraft would even include a nutrition label and ingredients list if it was voluntary.
It is disappointing to see the national organization representing the country’s financial aid administrators push for a status quo that does not help students make informed decisions. NASFAA isn’t even encouraging institutions to experiment with the Shopping Sheet. That’s a shame, because financial aid officers could continue to provide invaluable feedback to the Department about how the Shopping Sheet could be tweaked to better meet the needs of students in a diverse higher education landscape. Instead, financial aid officers are getting the message from their professional organization that the Shopping Sheet is a bad idea.
It’s hard to believe that part of NASFAA’s mission is to, “advocate for public policies and programs that increase student access to and success in postsecondary education,” when they are actively trying to do the opposite. If consumers can know the difference between cheddar cheese and Cheez-Whiz, shouldn’t students at least be able to understand the difference between a financial aid package from college A and university B, so they can compare how much it’s going to cost them to attend?