RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It's college acceptance time. And for most students, learning where you got in is followed closely by the question, how am I going to pay? The answer comes in complicated financial award letters. And, actually, those letters don't always have the answers. They are often filled with confusing terms, a whole lot of jargon. And the numbers are all over the map.
NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been trying to sort all this out.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: McKenna Hensley remembers trying to sort this all out too. This time last year, she was sitting on her bedroom floor with 10 of these letters spread out around her. One of them told her she was getting $76,000. She was going to be rich. She remembers smiling really big and thinking, yes.
MCKENNA HENSLEY: I got a lot of money.
NADWORNY: But hold up. When she looked a little closer, that big number included loans. McKenna was determined not to borrow. And when she added up the cost and subtracted the grants and scholarships, she was about $30,000 short.
HENSLEY: I was like, oh, you almost got me (laughter). I was like, oh, no, this is a bad deal.
NADWORNY: McKenna is now a freshman at Ohio State. But the roller coaster of emotions from her award letters - that still feels very fresh.
HENSLEY: You'll feel like you have a whole bunch of money but you don't.
RACHEL FISHMAN: I think anyone who's ever worked with students is just like, no, no, no, no, no, what a mess.
NADWORNY: Rachel Fishman is a researcher at the progressive think tank New America. She helped co-author a report with the nonprofit uAspire. They analyzed more than 11,000 award letters from about 500 four-year colleges.
FISHMAN: It's really the Wild West when it comes to how these letters look.
NADWORNY: The first thing they found - so much jargon and lingo. Take something like the unsubsidized federal student loan. It's a really common loan. But in the letters, researchers found 136 ways that colleges were abbreviating it. Some schools didn't even use the word loan. They'd call it fed-dir-unsub or just plain unsubsidized. Some of these weird names stem from the software schools use to generate the letters.
FISHMAN: There's just such a damning example of even the smallest thing that should be really simple, there's so many institutions doing different things.
NADWORNY: A third of institutions didn't include any estimation of costs like, tuition, housing, costs of living - nothing.
FISHMAN: But the first thing you're trying to figure out is, what the heck is this going to cost me? What does this mean? And you look for the number to subtract all this aid from, and there's nothing. There's nothing there.
NADWORNY: And like McKenna kept seeing over and over in her letters, the researchers found that 70 percent of schools put all the aid together - scholarships, grants, loans. So it felt like one big gift, even though those loans would have to be paid back. Plus, every school does something different.
CHUCK GRASSLEY: You're comparing apples and oranges instead of apples and apples.
NADWORNY: Last week, Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, sponsored a bill that would make all these letters clear and simple. And they would all look alike.
GRASSLEY: Shouldn't we bring as much truth out of making a decision - going to college - and not something that's cloudy and doesn't really turn out that way?
NADWORNY: Similar efforts have come up before. So what's different now? A lot more support in Congress.
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LAMAR ALEXANDER: So I used to be against that.
NADWORNY: That's Republican Senator Lamar Alexander.
ALEXANDER: Because I'm pretty adverse to federal rules.
NADWORNY: Alexander is the chairman of the Senate's education committee. And he's speaking here at the American Enterprise Institute in February.
ALEXANDER: With so many students receiving letters every year that do not make it clear what you have to pay back and what you don't, I think a requirement is a good idea.
NADWORNY: In the past, colleges and universities have balked at standardization. Award letters are a big part of how they entice students to enroll. They're competing with all these other schools, trying to convince students that their deal is the best one.
Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF TOTORRO'S "TIGERS AND GORILLAS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.