April is not only the time that many high school students find out which colleges accepted them, but also information about their financial aid. But as Nina Marks, a woman who serves as the president of a nonprofit that works with low-income, first-generation college students, points out in an article in the Washington Post, financial aid is actually sort of a mess:

The “fat envelope” spelling out good news is only occasionally accompanied by easily comprehensible financial aid information. Low-income applicants accepted at several schools may find that their aid offers differ markedly in their delivery date, format, language and presentation. Sometimes students must navigate a complicated Web site to get to their specific offer. Offers enclosed with admissions letters are often difficult to understand. Furthermore, aid offers do not always distinguish among or clearly describe grants, subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and student/family contributions, complicating efforts at comparisons.

Great, so you got in. Now, in a process that will try the patience of even the most intelligent high school student, and the most sophisticated parents, figure out which school is actually the most economical choice? The sticker price is only a very crude measure of what a school will actually cost.

Is there a way to standardize this sort of thing? Well, according to the author, there might be. After all, in the last 35 years, almost 400 American colleges have agreed to use the Common Application, which simplifies the college application process by allowing students to fill out only one form for multiple schools. Maybe it’s time to create a common financial aid package, allowing students to easily compare admissions offers.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer