Will Families Pay Less With Two Students in College? Now, It Depends.

For many years, one financial aid principle seemed fair enough: If you had two or more family members in college at the same time, the aid formula would let you take the money you could afford to pay and divide it among the number of people in school.

But on Jan. 1, a new federal law went into effect, and the formula changed. A million families with, say, two or more siblings in college simultaneously could pay thousands of dollars more per year as a result.

Now, colleges face a choice: Make up any shortfall with their own money, or cross their fingers and hope that families will borrow more or find some other way to pay. Which one will they choose? If only more of them would tell us.

In recent weeks, I examined 20 college and university websites, large and small, public and private, big endowments and not-so-big. Only six were clear on how things would change (or not) for families with multiple members in college.

Another six sites included factual errors (including one directly under a banner that said “Bringing Clarity to the Cost of College”) or outdated information that was so obvious I spotted it in just a minute of reading.

In their defense, this is a truly awful year to be a financial aid administrator.

That new federal aid formula is part of an overhaul of the dreaded FAFSA form, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. On Jan. 30, the Education Department issued a surprise announcement saying schools would not get data from the FAFSA until at least early March.

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