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SUNY financial aid letter revamp aims to reduce student debt

Stony Brook University, founded in 1957, is a

Stony Brook University, founded in 1957, is a public research university in Stony Brook on the North Shore of Long Island, and ranked in the top 100 public universities by the U.S. News & World Report, with about 25,000 students enrolled. (July 26, 2012) Credit: Brittany Wait

Prospective students at colleges within the State University of New York system will receive overhauled financial-aid award letters for the 2013-14 academic year that include a school's graduation rate, median borrowing and loan default rate along with other cost information, state officials said Wednesday.

The effort, across all 64 campuses, is part of a larger campaign that aims to reduce student debt, which averages $22,575 per SUNY graduate, state officials said.

SUNY campuses on Long Island are The College at Old Westbury, Farmingdale State College, Stony Brook University, Nassau Community College and Suffolk County Community College. About 2,300 Long Islanders are students of SUNY's Empire State College, primarily an online degree-granting program.

Stony Brook senior David Johnson, 22, of Elmsford, said he wished he had that kind of information when he was deciding on a university.

"As a high school student, you don't think about researching that stuff," said Johnson, an English literature major who also works a campus job. "I was more focused on the academics."

The new financial-aid award letters, much like the federal Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, will include more campus-specific information and be presented uniformly so students and families can better compare statistics among the SUNY schools.

SUNY is the first and largest public system of higher education nationally to implement such a tool for students and families, officials said.

SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher said the letter will help students "view a full outline of the financial commitment associated with their education."

Previously, administrators at each SUNY campus sent out their own financial-aid award letters and one school's letter did not necessarily contain all the information that another's did.

Financial-aid letters typically list a school's estimated cost of attendance, including tuition, housing, meals and other fees, with estimates for books and supplies and transportation. They also show what a student can expect to receive in grants and scholarships, and through a federal work-study program.

Also included is the figure known as the "expected family contribution," which schools' financial aid offices calculate from information that students and families submit on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA; the student's and parents' tax returns; and other required financial documentation.

Information about graduation rates, median borrowing and loan default rate usually can be found by researching a particular school.

In September, SUNY officials rolled out the Smart Track campaign to educate students and families about student loans by identifying at-risk borrowers early, and offering online calculators and chats with financial aid officers.

Kevin Stump, higher education advocate for the New York Public Interest Research Group, supports the moves, but said the state should focus more on lowering college costs than educating people about student loans.

"While know-before-you-owe policies and programs are critically important to help students understand their financial aid packages, the bottom line is that more needs to be done to offset rapidly rising student loan debt," Stump said. "We need to have policy conversations that focus on lowering costs to the students and increasing tuition assistance programs like TAP."

Johnson said he is pleased with the value he's gotten at Stony Brook, though he will graduate with $15,000 to $20,000 in student loans. "That's not chump change," he said. "It's money I'll have to pay back for a while."

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