Independent Consumer Testing Demonstrates Concerns with Standardized Financial Aid Award Letters

Contact: Beth Maglione
VP of Communications
(202) 785-6944

NASFAA-funded research shows that there is no “one size fits all” solution to award notification and consumer information

WASHINGTON, DC, APRIL 2, 2013 -- As college costs and student debt continue to expand, lawmakers and the public have increasingly called for better and more useful consumer information about the true cost of college. In an effort to improve financial aid award letters, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) engaged with JBL Associates, Inc. (JBLA), an independent research firm, to consumer-test three different types of award letters with students and families. 

The three letters tested were: (A) the U.S. Department of Education’s Shopping Sheet, (B) an award letter developed based on recommendations from NASFAA's Award Notification and Consumer Information Task Force, and (C) a NASFAA-designed hybrid of the previous two letters. The study showed no clear winner among those tested. Participants thought that aspects of each award letter were useful, but JBLA found that no document could replace a knowledgeable financial aid advisor in providing further explanation and assistance in understanding the award letter. This also serves to confirm NASFAA’s assertion that, until consumers are directly involved in the development of consumer information tools and products, it is impossible to accurately gauge what they want or need.

“Recently we’ve seen an uptick in interest at the federal level   for a single, standardized award letter for all institutions,” said NASFAA President Justin Draeger. “NASFAA is supportive of efforts to improve the student and family award letter experience, but we have concerns with the prescriptive nature of a standardized award letter.  Schools need the flexibility to craft award letters and consumer notifications that address the needs of their specific student body. It’s also concerning that--despite the vast amounts of consumer information made available to families--much of that information has not been consumer tested in any systematic way to determine what works.”

In conducting this consumer research, JBLA queried study participants about the clarity in each of the three letters, and asked participants to highlight features of the letter they found helpful or confusing, and if they had any suggestions for improvement.  JBLA also tested participants’ comprehension levels of financial aid concepts and content as presented in each letter. In addition to the questionnaire, JBLA conducted focus groups in three geographically diverse locations with students and parents at the high school level, and in colleges across all institution types.

Overall students and parents who took part in the study said they felt overwhelmed and confused by the information presented. In terms of rating the individual letters, 46% of respondents stated that the NASFAA Hybrid letter was favored overall in terms of clarity and ease of comprehension, with the NASFAA Task Force letter and Shopping Sheet and trailing behind at 28% and 26%, respectively.

As a result of this study, NASFAA is offering the following four recommended changes to award letters and consumer information:


  • Require additional consumer testing
  • Provide a glossary of standardized terminology
  • Provide institutions with the flexibility to format core elements
  • Reassess how and when consumer information is needed and useful



The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) is a nonprofit membership organization that represents nearly 20,000 financial aid professionals at more than 3,000 colleges, universities, and career schools across the country. Each year, our members help nearly 15 million students receive funding for postsecondary education. Based in Washington, D.C., NASFAA is the only national association with a primary focus on student aid legislation, regulatory analysis, and training for financial aid administrators. For more information, visit