Kim Clark
Kim Clark - 
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It's students who worry -- worry the most, anyway -- about getting into college. It is usually their parents, though, who worry about paying for it. With tuition mounting every year and the economy just barely coming up for air, the financial stress is only getting higher. Commentator Kim Clark says the government is making it worse.

By Kim Clark

If only financial aid was more like Cocoa Puffs. Cereal makers have to list their ingredients, and obey truth in labeling and advertising laws.

But most financial aid programs aren't covered by those laws. Take state college savings plans. Oregon recently settled with OppenheimerFunds, which had packed that state's "ultra-conservative" college savings plan with so many risky derivatives that it lost about half of its value.

Or so-called "Guaranteed" college savings plans. These savings plans guarantee parents who pay for tuition today that the plan will cover tuition in the future. But look at what's behind those guarantees. In Maryland, for example, if the fund can't earn enough to match tuition, the fund is "guaranteed" to ask the legislature for a bailout.

Then there's the "Teach" Grant, which was created to encourage students to become teachers. Great idea! But Congress attached so many strings that the grants turned into, basically, forgivable loans. The odds of having to repay those grants -- with interest -- are so high that many college financial aid officials will not process students' applications.

Perhaps the cruelest joke of all is the "Expected Family Contribution." That's the amount the government calculates families can afford to pay for tuition. But these days, about 98 percent of colleges don't have enough financial aid to ensure that every student's family only has to pay its EFC. And most low- and middle-income families typically have to pay their EFC plus another $5,000.

Politicians, bureaucrats and colleges are raising people's hopes with financial aid programs that promise more than they deliver. Maybe we don't have the money to give every student all the aid they need. But we ought to at least give them the truth.

Kim Clark covers money and education for U.S. News and World Report.